The Flaw In Clinton's Florida-michigan Strategy

by Jonathan Cohn | February 15, 2008

I see the Clinton campaign is still pressing to seat delegates from the Michigan and Florida primaries. What I fail to see is why.

Like most people, I find the effort objectionable on philosophical grounds – particularly in Michigan, where Clinton's name was the only one on the ballot. The Clinton campaign says that it is merely trying to respect the rights of Michigan residents who went to the polls that day. Well, I happen to be one of those people. And I find the argument unpersuasive.

But put that aside. It's the sheer practicality of this effort that baffles me at the moment.

As I understand it, in order to seat the two delegations at the convention in Denver, Clinton would have to win support first of the so-called Credentials Committee (whose members are assigned based on the results in the primaries and cacuses) and then the full convention, in each case by majority vote. In both cases, Clinton would have to obtain the approval of people who are pledged to support other candidates – in most cases, Barack Obama. That seems unlikely, too.

But there is another option, which TNR recently endorsed. Holding caucuses in Florida and Michigan, then having those contests – rather than the flawed primaries – determine the delegate allocation for those states. The Democratic National Committee has indicated it would honor such results – and even provide some money to the state parties if they agree to hold them. If the respective state parties would agree to hold them, new votes could go forward.

The risk for Clinton, naturally, is that this time she might not win Florida and Michigan – at least not by sufficiently large margins to make up whatever gap ultimately exists between her and Barack Obama.  But her chances of success certainly seem better than her chances of seating the delegates based on the current results.

After all, both states seem relatively friendly to her candidacy. Michigan, with the nation's highest unemployment rate, is singularly focused on the economy, suggesting its voters might be particularly amenable to her bread-and-butter focus. Florida has a large Latino population – and, so far, they still seem to favor her. (We'll see if the endorsement by the Service Employees International Union, with its large Latino membership, makes a difference there.)

And if Clinton could win both states, the symbolism would be incredibly powerful. Assuming she had won Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania along the way – if she didn't, presumably, then this whole conversation is moot because Obama would have won the nomination with or without Florida/Michigan – she could claim, legitimately, that she had all but swept the biggest states, including the two (Florida and Ohio) that decided the last two presidential elections.

Don't forget, too, that Florida and Michigan have huge populations. There might be enough votes there to close the popular vote gap.

Those arguments might be enough to win over a lot of the super-delegates – those unpledged delegates who, in many cases, will vote for whichever candidate they believe has the best chance of winning in November.  And that, ultimately, is what Clinton must do to win the nomination.

I have no idea how Obama's camp would respond to this; I haven't seen them comment on the possibility of new votes in Florida and Michigan. It's possible, if the nomination seems within reach but not certain, they might oppose such a move. But if they did that, then Obama – and not Clinton – would be the one making the more craven argument.

That's because, notwithstanding Clinton's transparent calculations, a serious injustice really has been done. Voters in two of the largest states – key swing states both of them – are not getting a say in the Democratic nomination for forces completely out of their control. It's particularly egregious in Florida, where – unlike in Michigan – it was a Republican-controlled state legislature that made this happen. Holding new votes would give voters in these states a chance to have their say, as they deserve.

(Confession of bias: While I vote in Michigan, my parents and most of my extended family vote in Florida, where I grew up. In other words, I have a larger-than-usual personal interest in this.)

So it seems to me that Clinton has an opportunity to reoccupy the moral high ground, enfranchise voters in two electorally vital states, all while improving her candidacy. All she has to do is abandon the call for honoring the flawed primaries.

Or am I missing something?  (Readers, feel free to chime in.)

UPDATE: Ask and ye shall receive. Reader mcv2004 informs me that Obama -- to his credit -- has already indicated he would support holding new votes: According to this CNN.com article, he said "If there's a way of organizing something in those states where both Sen. Clinton and I can compete and we have enough time to make our case before the voters there, then that would be fine." 

UPDATE 2: Also, several readers (and colleagues) have reminded me that senior senators from both states -- Carl Levin in Michigan and Bill Nelson in Florida -- have indicated they're against holding new votes. I should have mentioned that originally. I plan to talk about that later on, in a future post. For now, suffice to say that I think they're just plain wrong about this.

--Jonathan Cohn

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