Dis-Inevitability

Ever since we learned that at least 12 and as many as 19 states will hold their primaries or caucuses on February 5, the conventional wisdom has been that when we wake up on February 6, the Democrats will have a nominee.

Seems plausible. Any candidate who takes California, New York, New Jersey, and Missouri, that day's most delegate-rich states, might have amassed something on the order of 800 or 900 delegates. That's almost half the number needed for the nomination -- 2,162 were required in 2004 -- and so would probably make any such winner inevitable.

But wait a second! Who says one candidate is going to win all those states? Not me, bub. In fact, if we can learn anything from the race so far, which I admit is definitely an "if," the lesson is that inevitability hasn't been looking so inevitable.

So, in fact, far from solidifying the nominee at an early stage, Super-Duper Tuesday could create the least-inevitable situation for Democrats since the days when there used to be actual drama at a convention. Imagine that! Is such a thing possible anymore? Let's play with some numbers.

While not expressing preferences here, let me make some plausible guesses about who wins what. The delegate numbers I'm using on this list are from 2004; 2008 numbers will be close to the ones I use.

Start with Iowa. Since he's practically lived there for two years, let's put this in John Edwards's column. Also Nevada, a big labor state, and South Carolina, his home state. That would give Edwards three of the four pre-February 5 states. It's not possible to say how many delegates, since the rules are so complicated: Delegates are awarded proportionally, though in varying proportions from state to state, and some delegates aren't tied to the caucus or primary results, a percentage that also varies from state to state. But I've done a little homework and guesswork here, and I calculate that Edwards could have about 60 delegates.

New Hampshire: A total toss-up, right? At any rate, it's a small state that won't make anyone a Sultan of Brunei in delegate terms. So let's move on.

Now suppose Hillary Clinton takes New York and New Jersey on February 5. This would garner her roughly 250 delegates. But let's say Obama steals California away from her; not at all implausible (and, admittedly, the linchpin on which these musings depend). John Kerry got 288 delegates out of the Golden State in 2004, compared to second-place finisher Edwards's 82, so Obama would probably get similar figure, maybe a little lower.

Finally, let's say Missouri votes Edwards, which could bring him around 50. And let's imagine that Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee all move their voting to February 5, as they are considering doing. Those seem like Edwards states (although remember the large black votes in the Southern states). They could total about 115 delegates for the winner. Then you have Arizona, Arkansas, and a few smaller states voting that day. Let's say their delegates are spread around a little, with handfuls going to each of the leading candidates. And remember that second and sometimes third-place finishers get a few delegates in every state.

And so, you wake up on the morning of February 6 to find something like: Obama, 350; Clinton, 325; Edwards, 300!

Okay, I'm making those numbers up, but in the larger sense I'm not making this stuff up. It really could be about that close. Then, February 9 will bring Michigan and Louisiana. The former to Edwards, the latter to Obama? February 12 brings the 69 delegates at stake in Maryland. And February 19, the 87 delegates of Wisconsin. Let's say Hillary takes one or the other of those. She's back in the game.

Enough with the numbers. The point is this: Three strong candidates, all with dedicated backing and none informally anointed by the party brass or donor base, is something the Democratic Party hasn't seen in ages. One could say 1988, but even then, there weren't really three first-tier candidates (I don't think Al Gore was a first-tier candidate at that point in his career) who had the money to carry their campaigns into March. You can bet -- and this is the key thing -- that if the delegate count stays close into mid- to late February, all three campaigns will be raising plenty enough money to carry them into April. And it's possible, just possible, that after Montana and South Dakota vote on June 3, no one will have 2,600 delegates. Here, the role of the 800 or so "super-delegates," the elected officials and other potentates who can hold their commitments back until late, will loom large.

So could this mean a brokered convention? I know -- every four years, some wit writes a brokered convention scenario. It's always tortured. But 2008 is unique for the reasons laid out above -- on the Republican side, too, by the way, where many of the same conditions obtain. Last time around, I skipped New York and cut out of Boston early. Next year, I think it may be worth going to both St. Paul and Denver, and staying.

ADDENDUM: The power of the Prospect obviously proved too overwhelming for WAMU, which has announced, just a few short weeks after my column on the subject, that Liane Hansen and Will Shortz will be returning to Sunday morning radio in the capital beginning this coming Sunday. If this keeps up, maybe there will be a brokered convention!

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor-at-large. He writes a column most Wednesdays for TAP Online.

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