Whose Nominee Is It, Anyway?

Why Florida and Michigan don’t mind being disenfranchised.

The big-picture political-science story of the 1972 presidential election was the enfranchisement of the primary voter. In 1968, the states had held 15 primaries in which 34 percent of all convention delegates were selected. In 1972, the states held 22 primaries in which 53 percent of all convention delegates were selected. That a majority of convention delegates was now controlled by the public rather than by cigar-chomping party bosses cutting deals in smoke-filled rooms was widely noted at the time as evidence that the presidential nominating process had been democratized. Looking back on this landmark, some political thinkers believe the change improved our politics and some believe that it worsened them, but everyone agrees that the change was important.

The big-picture political story of the 2008 presidential election is the disenfranchisement of the primary voter. The Democratic Party is penalizing Florida and Michigan for moving up the dates of their primaries (to Jan. 29 and Jan. 15, respectively) in violation of Democratic Party rules. The Democrats’ penalty is to strip both states of their convention delegates. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, in a much-less-publicized move, is penalizing Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Wyoming for scheduling their primaries before Feb. 5, in violation of GOP rules. The Republicans’ punishment is to strip these five states of half their convention delegates. To summarize: The Democrats have disenfranchised 366 delegates out of 4,362, or fully 8 percent of the total, while the Republicans have disenfranchised 137 delegates out of 2,516, or fully 5 percent of the total. And the remarkable thing is … nobody cares.

Why doesn’t anybody care?

A glance at the 2004 primary calendar helps provide the answer. Florida doesn’t care because four years ago it didn’t hold its primary until March 9, which was after John Kerry had wrapped up the Democratic nomination. (The nomination of incumbent Republican George W. Bush was, of course, a foregone conclusion.) Similarly, Wyoming didn’t hold its primary until March 20. By pushing to move their primaries to an earlier date, Florida and Michigan are essentially swapping de facto disenfranchisement for de jure disenfranchisement. Not a big deal.

Michigan, South Carolina, and especially New Hampshire enjoyed more privileged spots on the 2004 primary calendar—Feb. 7, Feb. 3, and Jan. 27, respectively—so at first glance these states’ willingness to let the Democrats and Republicans block the seating of all or half their delegates seems insane. In fact, it isn’t insane. What’s insane is that it isn’t insane.

Convention delegates don’t matter anymore. It’s hardly news that they haven’t mattered at political conventions for about four decades, because at every convention since then the party nominee has been a foregone conclusion. But now convention delegates don’t even matter during the primary season. My smart friend Ron Brownstein, political director of Atlantic Media and a former political columnist for the Los Angeles Times, explained it to me this way:

We don’t nominate presidents anymore by getting to the point where somebody has a majority of the delegates. We nominate someone when we get to the point that there is a communal sense that one of the candidates has effectively won the nomination and the race is over.

Instead of achieving the necessary delegate count, a primary candidate wins by achieving the necessary momentum. If you build sufficient momentum, the necessary delegate count will come, Field of Dreams-style. But it will come not before but after the news media and the political establishment have already named the putative nominee. In 2004, for instance, the BBC News Web site carried the headline, “Kerry Wraps Up Democratic Conteston March 3 even though an accompanying graph showed that Kerry was still nearly 1,000 delegates shy of the number needed to win the nomination. Kerry’s chief remaining opponent, John Edwards, hadn’t dropped out of the race yet, but President Bush had already phoned Kerry to congratulate him and to promise a “spirited race” in the general election. (I cite the BBC because the foreign press tends not to assume that its readers understand how America selects its president, and therefore spells everything out much more helpfully than the American press does.)

On its “Make It Count, Florida” Web site, the Florida Democratic Party acknowledges the irrelevance of actual convention delegates to the nominating process by stating,

Don’t let anybody call this vote a “beauty contest” or a “straw poll.” On January 29, 2008, there will be a fair and open election in Florida, which will provide for maximum voter participation. The nation will be paying attention, and Florida Democrats will have a major impact in determining who the next President of the United States of America will be.

In other words … they’re all beauty contests now! They’re all straw polls! And we’ll be having ours while it still matters!

There remains one interesting variable. The top three Democratic candidates have pledged not to campaign in Florida or Michigan, and in Michigan Barack Obama and John Edwards have yanked their names off the ballot. (Hillary Clinton has not.) Consequently, political reporters will probably downplay the significance of these contests relative to the other primaries. Florida and Michigan are counting on this snub mattering less than the general impression these states’ results create in reporters’ minds when combined with the prevailing electoral trend. It’s all about contributing to the gestalt! (On the Republican side, all the candidates will campaign in the semidisenfranchised states.)

It is widely assumed that whoever the putative Democratic and Republican nominees turn out to be, they will re-seat the prodigal delegates at the conventions after those delegates have already been neutered with respect to the main business at hand, i.e., choosing the nominee. Attending the conventions turns out to be the only thing delegates care about. They may not mind their disenfranchisement, but they would resent missing the excitement of the parties and the balloon drop and, most important of all, the sightings of the famous political reporters and TV talking heads who actually get to choose the party nominees based on their collective notion of political momentum. They are the momentucrats who preside over our momentucracy.