Election 2008

Analysis: Resolving Impasse on Fla., Mich. Delegates

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/90981429/90981404" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The Rules and Bylaws committee of the Democratic National Committee meets in Washington to try to resolve whether to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida at the convention. The states were stripped of their delegates after violating party rules by holding early primaries.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Robert Smith in for Steve Inskeep.

After months of campaigning and primary after primary after primary, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination may come down to this: a meeting this weekend of the rules and bylaws committee of the Democratic National Committee. That group is hoping to resolve the impasse over Michigan and Florida, the two states that were stripped of their delegates for holding early primaries. Their decision will affect whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will face John McCain in the November election.

Joining us now is a man whose pulse starts racing when he hears the words rules and bylaws committee, NPR's political editor Ken Rudin.

KEN RUDIN: Oh, Robert…

SMITH: Good morning.

RUDIN: …stop teasing me.

SMITH: So, I think what everyone wants to know is depending on the ruling of this committee, will it be possible for Clinton to win the nomination?

RUDIN: Well, she certainly hopes so. It's very unlikely. She's still 200 delegates behind Barack Obama. There's a lot of pressure from the party for business to be wrapped up pretty quickly. But she needs to make the case that if Michigan and Florida counted - she won both primaries back in January - if they count, then she'll get the votes, then she'll get the delegates, then she can appeal to these superdelegates who have yet to decide who they want for the nomination, that she's a stronger candidate in November, she's gotten more votes than Barack Obama during the primaries and caucuses and therefore she deserves to be the nominee.

Unfortunately for her, even since Pennsylvania, which she won pretty handily, and subsequent states where she won pretty handily, the superdelegates seem to be trickling in Barack Obama's favor.

SMITH: So, it's not that she can get enough delegates this weekend; it's that she can finally have a persuasive argument.

RUDIN: Her argument from the beginning is that let every vote count, even though back in January, her campaign and the Obama campaign - basically everybody else - said these will not count. Forty-eight states followed the rules; Michigan and Florida didn't follow the rules, they should be punished. The Clinton campaign agreed that they should be punished. But now since this is her only recourse she now feels that this is something that has to go through to the end.

SMITH: So, as they go before this committee, what will the Clinton campaign argue? What do they want?

RUDIN: Well, they want, obviously, a fair distribution of the Michigan and Florida delegates. Even…

SMITH: Does that mean all of the ones that she might have won from the contested vote (unintelligible)…

RUDIN: Well, that's the thing. First of all, in Michigan, for example, Barack Obama was not even on the ballot. So the Clinton campaign says, well, how do you divide up delegates between Obama and Clinton if Barack Obama was not even on the ballot to begin with. So there's a lot of, you know, back and forth.

There's a proposal out there in Michigan that Hillary Clinton would get 69 delegates - less than she wants, more than Barack Obama would like her to have - and Barack Obama would get 59. There are some Clinton delegates who say that's not enough, that she deserves more because she won the state handily.

SMITH: If she can't get enough delegates necessarily to clinch the nomination from this weekend, then why does the Obama campaign even fight this? I mean, why make an issue of this?

RUDIN: Well, they're not actually making the big issue as they would have earlier. Initially they said this should be a 50/50 split, these delegations broke the rules. They should not be rewarded with having a say in the nomination. But since Barack Obama is, like, 200 delegates up, he could be more magnanimous, he could say, okay, Hillary Clinton could have more delegates in Florida, more delegates in Michigan. The thing they don't want, of course, is for her to get enough delegates that suddenly what look like to be no longer a fight for the nomination becomes a fight again.

SMITH: Well, we're talking about this like it's Clinton versus Obama. But there must be some people on the committee, and certainly on the DNC, who want to look at the bigger pictures, which is they want to be able to control the schedule of the primary and they want to make sure that Michigan and Florida are punished in some ways for this, right?

RUDIN: Well, the irony of this is had Michigan and Florida kept the dates they originally had…

SMITH: Yeah.

RUDIN: …by not moving up, they could have been king or queen makers by having a tremendous say in who gets the nomination. But they were so jealous of the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire that they tried to move up into January, make a difference. And ultimately they hurt themselves.

SMITH: Do you think this will be a dramatic scene this week? I heard a tell of protestors actually.

RUDIN: There will be protestors - busloads of Hillary supporters. The Clinton campaign say that they're not responsible for it, not organizing it, but clearly they are in favor of Clinton's argument that every vote should count. Hillary Clinton has even been making this a civil rights issue. She's comparing the people in Michigan and Florida to the people in Zimbabwe who were struggling to get the vote to Jim Crow laws in the South.

She's making it a real civil rights issue. But, look, this is the rules committee. Ultimately it's about rules.

SMITH: So, if the committee decides against Hillary Clinton, will there be pressure for her to accept this rules committee or does she have other options?

RUDIN: Well, she does have another option: she can go to credentials committee…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: We do this all over again.

RUDIN: Exactly. There are 168 members of the credentials committee. They meet in either late July/early August. And whatever decision the credentials committee folks do has to be ratified by the full convention in Denver. And the last thing Democratic Party leaders want is for this to go to the floor of the convention. There's tremendous pressure on her to end this race, that she gave a good fight, but with the primaries over on Tuesday - South Dakota and Montana - it's time for an end.

Harry Reid has said so yesterday. Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic Committee, feels the same way.

SMITH: You know, I'm picturing this scene of protesters on both sides yelling back and forth, this dramatic decision by the committee. Very quickly, I mean, are we going to see a split here in the Democratic Party? This sounds very dramatic.

RUDIN: We have seen in the past when challenges go all the way to convention, we saw it with Kennedy and Carter in 1980, Humphrey and McGovern in '72, that a long, elongated protest can hurt the party, but ultimately, look, there's a dinner Saturday night in New York, a unity dinner. Hopefully they'll get some of these people back together.

SMITH: NPR political editor Ken Rudin, thanks.

RUDIN: Thanks.

SMITH: You can read Ken's Political Junkie column every week at npr.org/elections.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee Meeting

'Remember Florida' button

In 2000, Democrats wanted everyone not to forget what happened in the Sunshine State. In 2008, the Clinton camp wants everyone to remember Florida and Michigan. hide caption

toggle caption

Election 2008

'Adlai and Estes' button

The last time a vice presidential nominee was decided by convention delegates came in 1956, when Democrats in Chicago picked Estes Kefauver to run with Adlai Stevenson. hide caption

toggle caption
'Barr '08' button

Bob Barr is the first former House member to head a third-party ticket since Ron Paul in 1988. hide caption

toggle caption
Robert Kennedy button

Forty years ago today, Bobby Kennedy said he might quit the race if he failed to win the California primary. hide caption

toggle caption

I know what you're thinking. This is the kind of headline that sends chills down one's leg. Guaranteed to increase readership. Double it, in fact.

The scary part is, actually, it's true. Only in this most remarkable battle for a presidential nomination in decades, one that has made political junkies out of even the most jaded of bystanders, can a heretofore ignored meeting of a heretofore ignored committee of the national Democratic Party become the most talked about event of the week.

If you loved the endless conversation about the shape and length of the table during the Paris peace talks in 1968, then you'll love the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting.

My tone is semi-mocking, but the stakes are high. It may be Hillary Clinton's last shot at winning her party's nomination. As it is, the odds of that happening are between slim and none, and probably far closer to none than slim. But there will be drama on Saturday, starting at 9:30 a.m., when the 30 members of the Rules Committee, advocates from the punished states of Michigan and Florida, DNC officials, Clinton and Obama partisans, pro-Hillary protesters, and eight gazillion political journalists will gather at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington.

The issue: how to deal with two states that violated party rules by holding their primaries in January. At the time, the Rules Committee voted to penalize the states by taking away half their delegates, as the rules call for. The vote on the committee was nearly unanimous, and it included the vote of committee member/Clinton bigwig Harold Ickes. All the candidates — including Clinton and Obama — agreed not to campaign in either state; Obama, in fact, withdrew his name from the Michigan ballot. Clinton kept hers on. And though she won both states convincingly, she said at the time that in effect the votes didn't amount for much. That was then.

Clinton has since changed her tune, saying that this is a civil rights issue, that she won the primaries and thus should get the appropriate number of delegates. Meaningless back then, suddenly the symbol of democracy today. She has equated the situation in Michigan and Florida to those fighting for a fair election in Zimbabwe and has suggested that it all has all the makings of Jim Crow laws in the South. I'm not making that up.

But the DNC has changed its tune since then as well, taking away all the delegates from the two states, not just half. No one can envision a Democratic convention in Denver without the 368 total delegates from Michigan or Florida, and no one thinks that's even a slim possibility. But will there be a seating of half the delegates or all of them? Will they be divided 50-50, or will Clinton get a majority of both? And will Clinton's majority be large enough to be acceptable by her campaign?

And how do you decide how many delegates Obama should get out of Michigan, since his name wasn't even on the ballot there?

And how do you not punish two states that broke the rules? This is, after all, a Rules Committee. What message does it send to the 48 states that followed the script?

(For the record, most nonpartisan reviews of the process indicate that Clinton supporters make up about 13 of the Rules Committee members, compared to eight or so for Obama. But the sense is that this is unlikely to play into what the committee decides.)

And what if the result is unacceptable to the Clinton forces? There remains the possibility that she could take her case to the 186-member Credentials Committee, which would meet sometime this summer. If it goes that far, whatever decision the credentials folks make would have to be ratified by the full convention, in Denver in late August. The last thing many Democrats want is a floor fight at the convention.

That's why Saturday's committee meeting is so important. A compromise satisfactory to both sides could keep a problem from turning into a disaster. That's why the betting is that it won't go all the way to Denver.

But how much of this campaign has followed a predictable script?

P.S. I've said this before and I'll say it again: Could you imagine what might have happened if Michigan and Florida kept their original primary dates? Instead of trying to diminish the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire by moving up in the calendar, had they stayed where they were, one, the party would have been spared this anguish; and two, they could have had a major say in deciding who the nominee would be. Maybe a lesson for 2012.

And now, your questions:

Q: I recently heard on NPR that a superdelegate who had endorsed Clinton had changed her support to Obama. With all the attention given to these superdelegates, why hasn't anyone added a disclaimer to these statements that an endorsement, or even a commitment, does not equal a vote at the convention? Is this failure just an effort to add to the drama? - Barbara Baum, Seattle

A: Your point is, technically, correct. Any delegate — one determined in the primaries or caucuses, or one of the supers — is free to change his or her mind at any time in the process until the actual balloting at the national convention. The rule binding delegates was changed after 1980, too late to help Sen. Ted Kennedy in his challenge to President Carter at the convention in Madison Square Garden (when Kennedy tried to bring about that rules change).

But it's been a long time since anyone talked about delegate counts, and it's been decades since anyone was having this conversation in June. While Bill Clinton officially locked up the 1992 Democratic nomination on June 2, it was effectively his after his triumph in the New York primary in April. In 2000, when Clinton was departing after two terms, Al Gore clinched the nomination in early March, not long after Iowa and New Hampshire. It was a similar early night for John Kerry in his 2004 bid. By focusing on delegate counts, we're not just trying to add to the drama. There's plenty of drama, and it's justified.

Q: Do you know where I could look online to find the TOTAL number of votes cast for the Democratic presidential candidates vs. the TOTAL number of votes cast for the Republican candidate? - Mitchelle Stephenson, Edgewater, Md.

A: You can find state-by-state results, along with a wonderful interactive presidential primary map on NPR's Web site.

A national tally can be found in many places; one I recommend is Real Clear Politics.

Q: Has a national party convention for either party ever decided the vice presidential nominee? - Jerry Stephens, U.S. Court of Appeals, Oklahoma City

A: In the old, old days, running mates were decided at the convention, along with the presidential nominee. The VP choice was often made by the party bosses, who were looking to balance a ticket for geographic or ideological reasons. At the 1932 Democratic convention, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York and House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas battled through four ballots before FDR won the nomination and Garner became the running mate. After that, the presidential candidate generally named his ticket mate, but in 1956, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson threw open the VP spot to the delegates at the Chicago convention. They selected Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, a Stevenson rival, but it took two ballots. Every running mate since has been chosen by the candidate. When Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, it was the first time a No. 2 was named in advance of the convention.

Q: Both John Edwards and Mitt Romney are being considered as potential VP candidates. When was the last time both running mates were unsuccessful presidential hopefuls that same year? - Paula Benson, Louisville, Ky.

A: The problem with finding a similar situation is that it's not often when there's a concurrent fight for both party nominations, as there is this year. The last time the VP candidates were presidential hopefuls that same year — and I could be wrong on this — was in 1884, when the Republican running mate, Illinois Sen. John Logan, had earlier challenged James Blaine for the GOP nomination. On the Democratic side, Sen. Thomas Hendricks of Indiana, also a presidential hopeful, was picked by nominee Grover Cleveland as his No. 2.

Of course, there are others who sought the presidency this year who are now being bandied about for VP. On the Democratic side, the list includes New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sens. Joe Biden (DE) and Chris Dodd (CT) — and, for all we know, Hillary Rodham Clinton. For the Republicans, there's former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Q: Will Bob Barr, who has received the nomination of the Libertarian Party, get as many votes as Ralph Nader did — 2.9 million — in 2000? - Jason Cole, Tucson, Ariz.

A: A good question. If there is residual unhappiness among some conservative Republicans regarding John McCain, Barr's candidacy could prove to be an important outlet for them. Remember, what's interesting about Nader's numbers in 2000 is not the nearly 3 million votes he received nationwide, but the 97,000 he got in Florida and the 22,000 votes in New Hampshire. Democrats contend that Nader's totals in these states are what elected George W. Bush, who won the Sunshine State by just 537 votes and New Hampshire by 7,211.

Barr is the latest former or current House member to head up an independent or third-party presidential ticket. Others on the list include:

Ron Paul, ex-Republican from Texas, Libertarian Party candidate, 1988

John Anderson, Republican from Illinois, independent candidate, 1980

John Rarick, ex-Democrat from Louisiana, American Independent Party candidate, 1980

John Schmitz, Republican from California, American Party candidate, 1972



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from