Thoughts on the Democratic Primary Mess

You’ve probably seen the news by now: Over the weekend, the Democratic National Committee followed through on months of threats and stripped Florida of all of its delegates to the party’s 2008 convention.

Florida’s crime: Scheduling its primary for January 29, in defiance of the D.N.C.’s previously agreed upon 2008 primary calendar, which calls for no state (besides Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina) to vote before February 5.

Understandably, Florida’s Democrats – most prominently, Senator Bill Nelson – are crying foul, but they aren’t engendering much sympathy from other state Democratic parties. After all, Florida was among the state parties that ratified the D.N.C.’s 2008 primary calendar last year.

The D.N.C.’s penalty won’t take effect for a month, and presumably some compromise will be reached in that time. One possibility – which Florida is now resisting – would be for the state to hold some sort of “beauty contest” on January 29 – a non-binding primary or caucus where the results do not affect the delegate selection process for the actual convention. (The delegates could then be chosen at a state convention or through caucuses sometime after February 5.)

Given that the actual delegate selection process doesn’t much matter these days – there hasn’t been a second ballot at a national convention since 1956, and there almost certainly won’t be in ’08 – the non-binding/binding distinction seems pointless. The real value of a primary for a candidate is the momentum generated from being declared the winner by the media.

But Florida has good reason to hold out for a binding primary.  Look at it this way: Hillary Clinton’s campaign plainly wants an early Florida primary, given her strengths in the state (and her effort last month to paint Barack Obama as soft on Castro). But if it’s non-binding, that might give Obama – and John Edwards too, for that matter – a rationale for declining to compete. A Hillary win under that scenario – no delegates and no active opponents – probably wouldn’t mean much to the media. So Florida is taking a hard line and demanding a full-scale primary.

Then again, if the current 30-day cooling off period ends with Florida refusing to bend, then the D.N.C. would presumably stand by its decision to strip the state of delegates – effectively making the January 29 primary non-binding. Obama and Edwards could potentially skip it under those circumstances as well, citing solidarity with the D.N.C. – and every other state party – and the fact that no delegates seem to be at stake. Then again, Florida is betting that the general election value of the Sunshine State will force the candidates compete, lest they irritate the voters in a pivotal general election swing state.

One thing is certain, though: When the Democratic convention is gaveled to order in Denver next summer, there will not be a bunch of empty seats in the Florida delegation. Even if the D.N.C.’s penalty holds up through next January, the eventual nominee – who will assume de facto control over the national party – will insist on seating a delegation from Florida, probably the one chosen during the January 29th primary. Even if the nominee (Obama, say) loses that primary, his priority would be to build unity – why refuse to seat a delegation for a made-for-television event in which the outcome is preordained?  

If anything, the Florida (and Michigan) saga illustrates how absurdly unstructured the nominating process is. It’s reminiscent of college football arcane system for declaring a national champion, in which the various conferences cut their own deals and leave the national organization (the N.C.A.A.) out of the mix. College football would be vastly better served if the N.C.A.A. could exert control over its post-season, and the presidential primary process would make much more sense if the state parties would yield to the D.N.C.