Barack Obama and his supporters are exuberant after their victories this last weekend in the Washington and Nebraska precinct caucuses, in the Louisiana primary and the Maine municipal caucus. But they would do well to remember that since the mid-1970s the Democratic National Committee has spent countless hours plowing firebreaks between expressions of the popular will in such caucus and primary votes and the ultimate selection of the nominee.
Take Alabama. On February 5, Super Tuesday, Obama won that primary in convincing fashion by a margin of nearly 20 points. But when the dust settled, he and Hillary Clinton ended up with an equal number of pledged delegates from the state. Why? The delegates were proportioned according to the votes in the state’s 7 congressional districts and like all such political real estate in the USA, these districts have been gerrymandered to corral the black vote in as small a number of districts as possible. Result, Obama won 83 per cent of the black vote, but the those numbers were concentrated in two or three districts so even though Obama ran up 70-30 triumphs and Hillary battled to 55 to 45 margins of victory, the count at the end of the day gave them the same number of delegates each.
Another firebreak is the follow-on in many states, from caucus to state convention. The current pattern is that Obamian enthusiasts go the caucuses and delivery fiery speeches about their man and his dream of change, rack up a substantial victory and head back to campus, aglow with victory. But then the party regulars regroup, the labor organizers confer, and the party establishment strikes back at the state convention, where those delegates pledged at the caucus are “authorized” in a series of backroom deals.
Gary Hart learned this the hard way in 1984. Hart had won his political spurs in a famous mutiny of the Democratic base, when Hart managed George McGovern’s successful drive to the nomination in 1972. In the early states of the 1984 campaign Hart won a dramatic victory by ten points over Walter Mondale in New Hampshire. Short on money, Hart then aimed, exactly like Obama, at the caucuses to show momentum. After Super Tuesday, Mondale and Hart were neck and neck. Then Hart cleaned up in the caucuses, just as Obama is now doing. The two split the big states. Mondale won New York and Pennsylvania. Hart won Ohio and California. Then, in the weeks before the Democratic Party convention Mondale and the Democratic Party machine went into action at the various state conventions. Hart watched aghast as his hard-won delegates melted back into the smoke-filled rooms and emerged with Mondale buttons on their lapels. The coup de grace came with Mondale’s efficient capture of the Super Delegates, who went to him almost en bloc.
There was another powerful challenge in 1984, from Jesse Jackson. At the early part of the campaign for the Democratic nomination Jackson won five primaries and caucuses Louisiana, Washington DC, South Carolina, Virginia and Mississippi (which duly reversed Jackson’s singular triumph at the state convention.} Altogether, Jackson got 3.3 million primary votes, 21 per cent of the total votes cast in the 1984 primaries and caucuses. He ended up with precisely 8 per cent of the delegates. Jackson bitterly denounced the process as a rigged affair that should be reformed. Nothing has changed.
So although Obama has pulled even and on some counts is ahead in delegates pledged to him thus far, these numbers are far from conclusive.
In the Hillary camp we are witnessing the usual ritual following a bad spell on the campaign trail. Patti Solis Doyle, Hillary’s campaign manager, has been shown the door and Maggie Williams installed in her place. Meanwhile, Bill has been demoted to the telemarketing division of the campaign, speed-dialing Super Delegates.
Still amid such flurries the basic strategy is in place. Hang on until the big primaries in Ohio and Texas on March 4. Here Hillary is still seen as having the advantage of organized labor in Ohio and of the Hispanic vote in Texas. By and large union members are for Hillary, as John Edwards sadly discovered. Bizarre though it may seem, given Hillary’s record as a corporate lawyer, there’s a class divide between her and Obama. Hillary has the support of the white working class. She has also had a commanding edge in winning the votes of white women and people over sixty. These are very formidable assets.
Jackson ran into that wall in 1988. The early part of the campaign was one of the most exciting drives by an outsider in American political history. Hart put himself out of contention by his nautical jaunt with Donna Rice on the good ship Monkey Business. Jackson swept triumphantly through the early primaries: Alabama, Washington DC, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and Virginia. In the caucus states, he won Delaware, Michigan, South Carolina, Vermont. (His caucus victories in Texas and Alaska were once again diminished at the state conventions.)
By March of 1988 Jackson and Michael Dukakis, the uptight governor of Massachusetts, were neck and neck. Jackson thought he had a good chance of winning in Wisconsin, thus showing he could win a primary in an industrial state with a big slice of white working class voters. Jackson spent much time in the state, particularly on the picket lines outside the American Motors plant, scheduled to shut down. Jackson compared the struggle in Kenosha to the struggle in Selma in the 1960s. In the polling before the Wisconsin primary Jackson had a substantial lead. His hopes were dashed. In the last hours, in the privacy of the voting booth, many of these white working class voters jumped to Dukakis. This was the moment the wind went out of the Jackson campaign.
On the Republican side, the conservatives, distraught at the likelihood of McCain being the nominee, are prophesying disaster in the November vote. An internal assessment circulating though the Conservative Political Action Committee meeting in Washington DC last week predicted “an epic landslide” by the Democratic ticket similar to Lyndon Johnson’s obliteration of Goldwater in 1964. The memo attributed this likely outcome to recession, the war in Iraq and a terrible candidate. Republican senator Thad Cochrane has openly said he trembles at the thought of an unstable McCain in the Oval Office with his finger on the nuclear trigger. Whoever the Democratic nominee is, McCain should be easy meat, with scores of victims of his savage onslaughts ready to testify to his frenzied personal onslaughts and profanity-laden tirades. By insisting on using the word “gooks” about the Vietnamese, he’s already well on the way to losing the Asian-American vote. To an electorate opposed to the war in Iraq by some 70 per cent, he enthusiastically prophesies a century of war.
Against this distasteful and manic figure Mike Huckabee continues his challenge. Five days after the press, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson bowed in surrender and hailed McCain as the nominee, Huckabee this weekend won a primary in Louisiana, and caucuses in Kansas. He came in a very close second in the disputed caucuses in Washington state, where the Republican party chairman, Luke Essers, simply cut off the vote as soon as McCain nosed ahead of Huckabee by a 200 vote margin, with 15 per cent of the votes still to be counted. When asked why he has declined to run up the white flag of surrender, Huckabee said jovially, “You never know, McCain might have a macaca moment”, referring to the ethnic slur that doomed Senator George Allen in the Virginia race in 2006.
He may be right.