A Knock-Down, Drag-Out Delegate Battle

Originally posted: April 25, 2008

ken bode cropThe state of Pennsylvania has not produced a truly significant, national political figure since Benjamin Franklin died in 1790. You can look it up.

Nor, until Tuesday, had it ever hosted a presidential primary nearly so important as the win Pennsylvania voters handed Hillary Clinton. Eager to push her out of the race, many pundits predicted that she needed a double-digit win to survive, so she went out and got it, 55 to 45 percent. With that, Clinton has kicked the can down the road to Indiana, on May 6.

Over the next two weeks, our state will be flooded with pollsters, pundits, organizers and advertising. Clinton and Obama are opening offices all over the place. In one important sense, Pennsylvania was a missed opportunity.

For six weeks, Keystone State voters had Obama and Clinton to themselves, an uninterrupted opportunity to insist that the candidates address the economy, gas prices, the mortgage crisis, health care, job loss, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how to prevent terrorism, and protect civil liberties.

Instead, what unfolded was a flood of trivia and negativity, inspired in part by the ABC News debate where the moderators goaded the candidates into trashing each other. On the day after the victory that keeps her campaign alive, Clinton’s hometown newspaper, The New York Times, laid a considerable part of the blame on her campaign themes and TV advertising. The Times editorial board, which earlier endorsed Hillary’s presidential bid, singled out her late television ad that included images of the 1929 stock market crash, the Cuban missile crisis and Osama bin Laden. Said the Times, “Mrs. Clinton became the first Democratic candidate to wave the bloody shirt of 9/11,” a tactic torn right from Karl Rove’s playbook.

Is there any possibility that the candidates will use the next two weeks to get back onto an agenda of serious issues, leaving the flag pins and overall negativity behind at the Ohio border?

In Pennsylvania, Clinton enjoyed strong support from the Democratic establishment, including Gov. Ed Rendell, the mayors of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and those from 100 other smaller cities and towns. She has the Indiana Democratic establishment as well, but there is a difference. Pennsylvania is a far stronger party organization state, with a famous tradition — especially among the Democrats — of turning out their voters. Clinton has the backing of Sen. Evan Bayh, but he is not known to drive his followers to the polls with anything like the fury of his Pennsylvania counterparts.

In state after state, Obama has countered Hillary’s establishment support by expanding the electorate. Of the 327,000 new registrants in Pennsylvania, 62 percent said they would be voting for Obama, and exit polls showed that most did. Before registration closed, 100,000 new voters were added to the rolls in Indiana, many of them between 18 to 24, and 135,000 in North Carolina.

What the Pennsylvania results demonstrate, once again, is that this year’s Democratic voters are completely unable to make up their collective mind. Hillary wins a big one, then Obama runs off a string of small ones, then Hillary wins another big one.

Clinton’s win on Tuesday produced an almost even split in delegates, 52 for her, 46 for Obama, proving once again that the Democrats’ system of proportional representation has made all the difference in this year’s contest. With a winner-take-all system like that in the GOP, Hillary’s victories in large states like New York, California, Ohio, Texas, New Jersey, and Massachusetts would have cemented her nomination long before Pennsylvania or Indiana.

Superdelegates were created for just this moment. That category of delegates exists to represent the collective wisdom, experience and judgment of the party. If the voters are deadlocked, superdelegates are supposed to step in and decide who has the ability to win. The results from Pennsylvania give those 300 still-undecided superdelegates reason to put off a decision for at least another two weeks.

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