How likely is it that the Democrats are in for a bitter nomination fight, even on the floor of their convention in Denver in late August? Perhaps not very. After Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia on February 12, he assumed a lead in the count of pledged delegates (those apportioned according to votes won) that seemed suddenly almost insurmountable.
NBC’s Chuck Todd and Tim Russert, for example, estimated after Obama’s trifecta that Clinton would need to win 55 percent of pledged delegates—which, because of the complex and varied ways in which delegates are awarded, would require winning more than 55 percent of the vote in most states—in all seventeen remaining contests to draw even in the delegate count. For a candidate who to that point had won only ten of thirty-three contests, that seems a virtual impossibility; certain of the remaining states appear to be Obama strongholds (Mississippi on March 11, North Carolina on May 6, Oregon on May 20).
Obama’s astounding wins on February 19 in Hawaii and especially Wisconsin, where, according to exit polls, he defeated Clinton across all income and education groups among an electorate that was 87 percent white, left Clinton with few options. She now must not only win Texas and Ohio (March 4) and Pennsylvania (April 22), but she must also win all three by substantial margins to make a persuasive claim on staying in the race. No less fervent a Clinton supporter than James Carville, speaking the day after the so-called Potomac primaries at a homebuilders’ trade show in Orlando, said that “if she loses either Texas or Ohio, this thing is done.” If Carville says so, it will likely congeal into conventional wisdom.
After Wisconsin it was difficult to imagine how, short of all-out attack that risks severe backlash, Clinton could regain momentum. But Ohio and Pennsylvania remain potentially friendly territory, and she still has a strong ground organization in Texas. So suppose she does well enough in those three states, and some others, to come within, say, one hundred delegates of Obama. Both camps seemed to agree that a one hundred-delegate margin constitutes a fair definition of competitive.1 In that case, we will have a fight, and potentially a very ugly one, involving both the superdelegates—the 795 party and elected officials who get to cast their votes as late as the convention, after studying the prevailing winds—and the disputed Florida and Michigan delegations, which include 366 delegates.2 In both cases, especially the latter one, it is worth examining how the fight was started, and by whom.
Every four years, both parties establish rules under which the upcoming presidential race will be fought. For this election cycle, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), headed by Howard Dean, established a Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC), chaired by former Clinton secretary of labor Alexis Herman and James Roosevelt Jr., grandson of Franklin Roosevelt, to formulate the rules under which states were to select…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.