Quite honestly, I've been getting annoyed with certain kinds of diaries around here. These are the diaries that insist that Hillary Clinton should withdraw from the Presidential race. Hillary has every right to continue her campaign for as long as she pleases.
Certainly, her odds of winning the nomination are fairly long -- 4-to-1 against, or 9-to-1 against, or 19-to-1 against, or whatever estimate you might prefer. But many candidates have remained in the nomination race while facing longer odds, whereas very few have withdrawn while facing odds as short as Hillary’s. If we are to believe the futures markets, Barack Obama was once facing odds of about 8-to-1 against winning the nomination, and nobody was urging him to withdraw. On the other hand, John Edwards, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, who did withdraw, were each facing odds of at least 50-to-1 against before they did so.
No, the problem with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is not that she remains in the race. In the grander scheme of things, having even as much as a 5 percent chance to win the Presidential nomination of the Democratic party is pretty darn significant. Many, many campaigns have been launched over the years with far less than a 5 percent chance of winning their party's nomination; Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, in a field that was eventually going to include heavyweights like Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, were two of them this year.
Nor is the problem precisely that Hillary is going negative against Barack Obama. That is a problem, to the extent that this type of campaigning tends to reduce the chances of the Democratic nominee winning the Presidency. This is, after all, a non-zerosum game, in that both candidates have the ultimate goal of winning the Presidency rather than merely the nomination.
But that is not the problem. I think, instead, the particular type of negative campaigning that Hillary has engaged in is symptomatic of a larger problem. And what problem is that?
The problem is the existence of a contest in which Hillary Clinton is simultaneously attempting to compete and to re-define the victory conditions. This has gone on all campaign season. Just within the past week, her campaign tried to establish yet another new and arbitrary standard for determining the "winner" of the nomination contest, while Hillary coyly made the point that pledged delegates were there for the flipping.
It seems to me that virtually all of the nervousness over the state of the nomination race stems not from the mere fact that Hillary is continuing to compete, nor from the possibility that she might overtake Barack Obama in pledged delegates. Rather, it is specifically from the possibility of the brokered convention, and that Hillary might seek to overturn a pledged delegate advantage that Obama had earned throughout the nomination process.
Indeed, the fact is that whatever might happen at the convention, the campaign has already reached the stage where it is being contested more among the audience of superdelegates than ordinary voters.
Witness, for instance, all the talk about electability. Electability is not something that most rank-and-file voters are terribly concerned with; in exit polls throughout the primary states, it has almost always scored in the single-digits when voters were asked the reason for picking their candidate. But, it is high on the list of the decision criteria for many superdelegates.
Generally speaking, favorability ratings behave like the stock market: they tend to either rise slowly or fall quickly. This leads to the peculiarity that there are strong incentives to make your fellow Democrat less electable, since it is probably easier to make your opponent less electable than to make yourself more electable. It seems sometimes that the goal at this stage of the nomination process is not to defeat the other candidate, so much as to mortally wound him.
This is the particular type of negative campaigning that I'm talking about. Ordinarily, there are checks and balances against negative campaigning in the primary process, because voters tend to backlash against it. But if Hillary no longer cares about what ordinary voters decide, and instead her only goal is to make Obama less electable in the eyes of the superdelegates, the rules become much different.
Even more clearly, all the talk about the electoral process talk is aimed at superdelegates. Think how many conference calls, and how many column inches, have been wasted on debating which states "count" and which ones do not, or what to do about Florida and Michigan, or the proper role of the superdelegates themselves. Some of this talk has bordered on self-parody.
Meanwhile, when was the last time the candidates seriously debate their health care proposals, or their proposals for reinvigorating the economy? (For that matter, when was the last time that a diary that compared Hillary and Obama’s health care plans made the rec list?) No. Instead, all we talk about anymore is process. Even where policy issues are brought up, they are usually brought up (like NAFTA) as "gotcha moments" that are designed to discredit the other candidate rather than to actually explore the underlying issue.
It would be one thing if we had a presumptive nominee, and he (or she) could start to articulate his (or her) policy differences with John McCain. It would be another thing if the two Democrats were still debating policy differences among themselves -- at least that way, they’d still be responsible for articulating their own policy visions. But instead, we have a third thing: our candidates are mired in a quagmire over process, and their candidate gets to have the policy stage all to himself. Is it any wonder that his poll numbers are rising?
To reiterate, each of these problems stem not so much from Hillary's mere presence in the race, but rather the fact that the victory condition is not well-defined, in such a way as to give the superdelegates more power than was really intended of them.
Would it be too much to ask the candidates, in the downtime we have between now and Pennsylvania, to lay out a set of shared expectations for governing the rest of the contest? One rule set that I think would be reasonably fair to both parties is as follows:
- Each side pledges not to go after one another's pledged delegates.
- Florida’s delegation is seated in accordance with the results of the January primary, but each delegate counts for ½ vote. Michigan’s delegation is seated, with each delegate counting for ½ vote, but its delegates are split 50:50 between Obama and Clinton.
This is otherwise known as the Halperin compromise. Among other things, it is probably a reasonable representation of what would have happened if revotes were actually held in Michigan (where the last public poll had the candidates tied and in Florida (where the last public poll had Hillary ahead by approximately one-half of her January margin).
By the way, I don’t think either candidate can particularly claim the moral high ground with respect to Michigan and Florida. It is clear that the Obama campaign played a hand in sort of filibustering away the prospect of a revote in Michigan (and perhaps to a lesser extent in Florida). On the other hand, the Clinton campaign has no room to complain, when they shifted their position on Michigan and Florida several times, and after Hillary Clinton insisted as late as March 6 that revotes in Florida and Michigan were not a valid alternative.
I would not accept a caucus [in Michigan]. I think that would be a great disservice to the 2 million people who turned out and voted. I think that they want their votes counted. And you know a lot of people would be disenfranchised because of the timing and whatever the particular rules were. This is really going to be a serious challenge for the Democratic Party because the voters in Michigan and Florida are the ones being hurt, and certainly with respect to Florida the Democrats were dragged into doing what they did by a Republican governor and a Republican Legislature. They didn't have any choice whatsoever. And I don't think that there should be any do-over or any kind of a second run in Florida. I think Florida should be seated.
- The candidates agree that they will drop out of the race if the other candidate receives an outright majority (not a mere plurality) of pledged delegates. If the leading candidate receives a plurality but not a majority, the superdelegates may intervene, and factors like the popular vote count may come under consideration.
This sets up a "buffer zone", which is equal to the number of delegates that John Edwards has in his possession (presently 24.5, as he lost some delegates in Iowa but would pick some up some half-delegates under this proposal in Florida). If a candidate receives 25 more delegates that the other candidate, he guarantees himself an outright majority, and the nomination is over. If things are extremely close, however, then we get into the area where there is room for legitimate concern about things like delegates having been flipped at county- and state-level conventions, or what happens to John Edwards’ delegates, or potential irregularities in vote counting. So, the idea of some kind of "buffer zone" makes sense.
If both candidates agreed to this set of rules, then Barack Obama would presently have 1483.5 pledged delegates, Hillary would have 1335.5, and John Edwards would have 24.5. 566 pledged delegates remain to be allocated.
This produces a total of 3409.5 pledged delegates; a candidate would need to win 1705 to receive an outright majority. Barack Obama would need to win 39.1% of the remaining pledged delegates to meet this threshold; Hillary would need to win 65.3%. If Obama wins more than 34.7% but less than 39.1%, neither candidate has a majority, and the contest goes to the superdelegates.
Is Hillary likely to receive at least 61% of the remaining pledged delegates? It is certainly not likely, but we have to consider the effects of momentum. If Hillary won a major victory in Pennsylvania -- something like the 26-point margin this PPP poll predicted recently -- that would not only cut significantly against Obama's delegate margin but would also change the narrative give her momentum for future states. She would have to be looking at something like this:
State Del Winning Margin Obama Clinton
PA 158 Hillary +26.6% 58 100
Guam 4 TIE 2 2
IN 72 Hillary +19.4% 29 43
NC 115 Hillary +9.6% 52 63
WV 28 Hillary +35.7% 9 19
KY 51 Hillary +33.3% 17 34
OR 52 Hillary +7.7% 24 28
PR 55 Hillary +45.5% 15 40
MT 16 TIE 8 8
SD 15 Hillary +6.7% 7 8
Total 566 ------------- 221 345
That would be enough (by 0.5 delegates) to deny Obama an outright majority. Is such a scenario likely? No, but this is a better scenario for her than without this plan being in place. We are essentially spotting her 43.5 delegates -- 19 from the half-delegates in Florida, and 24.5 by saying that Obama must win a majority, rather than a plurality. The important thing is that it would be a fair fight, and we would have the resumption of the real campaign, rather than the shadow campaign fought before superdelegates.
For all I care, seat the entire Florida delegation, and split Michigan 50:50. This would require Obama to win 42.5% of the remaining pledged delegates to garner an outright majority, a threshold that is a little more palatable for Hillary. But do something that is within the basic parameters of fairness, and sets up clear-cut victory conditions, and do it sooner rather than later.