Commentary: Do Democrats understand democracy? | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Do Democrats understand democracy?

May 28, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: May 28, 2008 - I recently received a letter from Hillary Clinton. Emblazoned across the envelope it came in was a pledge that she was “going all the way.” This struck me as a rather sporting proposition because, in the high school parlance of my youth, girls known to “go all the way” were the ones you could score with on the first date.

Alas, it turns out Hillary’s only after my money. She wants me to help out by “rushing a gift of $100 or even $50” to her campaign. It’s refreshing to learn that the self-proclaimed champion of the working class is still willing to accept a piddling fifty bucks from a total stranger.

But I don’t mean to pick on Hillary. She’s just one player in a larger saga intended to prove again the adage that Democrats rarely miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Credit Birmingham News

With climatic showdowns in Montana, South Dakota and Puerto Rico pending, the party faithful await the coronation of the first African-American or the first female presidential nominee from a major party. Either would be a historic event. Then again, as prohibitive favorite Barack Obama has just lost two of the last three primaries by margins of better than 2 to 1, Dems would do well to remember that the crash of the Hindenburg was likewise a historic, but not altogether pleasant, event.

If it’s true a camel is a horse designed by a committee, the Party of Jefferson obviously anticipates a desert campaign. The structure of its delegate selection process is an unwieldy amalgamation of unworkable compromise, inherited privilege and meaningless inclusion dedicated to the proposition that winning isn’t everything.

It features pledged delegates and super-delegates. The former are awarded based on the results of primary elections and caucuses; the latter are automatically seated at the convention by virtue of their elected political office or position within the party.

To avoid hurt feelings by having a clear-cut winner, pledged delegates are awarded proportionately based on a candidate’s showing within a given state. That would be an excellent model if we happened to elect presidents by popular vote. Unfortunately, as George W. Bush demonstrated in 2000, we don’t do that.

With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, states vote in the Electoral College on a winner-take-all basis. A candidate who wins a state by 1 percent of the popular vote gets 100 percent of that state’s electors. As there are 538 electors, the first candidate to get 270 wins.

So far, Clinton has won 20 states that would be worth 308 electoral votes. If she could carry those states in the general election, she’d be the next chief executive and Bill could begin rehearsing for his portrayal of Adam: the “First Man.”

Obama has won 28 states plus the District of Columbia and Guam — yes, Guam — which, in November, would mean a total 224 electoral votes. If he were to take those and no others in the general, the band plays “Hail to the Chief” when John McCain enters the room.

Of course, neither candidate is guaranteed to carry a state in November just because he or she won its Democratic primary. Though much of the support for Obama’s nomination comes from traditionally Republican territory, some states that Hillary won — such as New York or California — will likely support the Democrat regardless of who wins the nomination.

Looking at the last four elections, it becomes clear that any Democrat with a pulse will do well in the Northeast, Illinois, the Pacific Coast states (including Hawaii) and the District of Columbia. That voting bloc is worth 194 electoral votes. (Guam and Puerto Rico, included in the primary process to showcase cultural sensitivity, have no representation in the Electoral College. Carrying these territories is the equivalent of being endorsed by Finland.)

Conversely, a viable Republican can expect automatic support in the South, excepting Florida, the West, sans New Mexico, and Alaska. That grouping yields 175 electoral votes for the GOP.

The election thus hinges on the Rust Belt, Border States, the Midwest, Florida and New Mexico. There are 169 electoral votes at play here. In the primaries, Hillary took 131 of these; Barack captured 38.

We are now told that the convention’s answer to the House of Lords, the super-delegates, are morally obliged to support the candidate who won the most pledged delegates, thus raising the question of why they exist.

With Republicans enjoying approval ratings normally associated with toe fungus, their opponents are poised to nominate the candidate who lost every region they need to win in November. The next time Hillary drops me a line, maybe she can explain why Democrats can’t seem to master democracy …

M.W. Guzy, St. Louis, has been a commentator for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Arch City Chronicles and TomPaine.com.