Democrats have spent much of the past couple of months worrying about the potential damaging effects of the drawn-out nomination battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But on Saturday they may have a new image problem on their hands: the specter of angry hordes of Clinton supporters showing up at the Washington meeting of the Democratic National Committee's Rules & Bylaws Committee to protest against the disenfranchisement of 2.3 million voters in Florida and Michigan.
It is part of Clinton's last-ditch effort to seat all of the delegates from both states, which were stripped of their delegates after they moved up their primaries in defiance of the party's rules. Clinton's rhetorical war on behalf of the two states has grown increasingly heated, as she has likened the dispute to the 2000 Florida recount, the 1960s fight for civil rights and, in an even bigger stretch, the election standoff in Zimbabwe. But the meeting is Clinton's last remaining glimmer of hope to catch Obama, who currently leads the race by around 160 pledged delegates, with only three primaries remaining, in Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota.
If the panel were to grant Clinton's wish, she would get 105 of Florida's 185 delegates as the top prize for winning the state's January 29 primary with 50% of the vote; Obama would get 67, and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who has since dropped out of the race and endorsed Obama, would get 13. As for Michigan, where neither Obama nor Edwards was on the ballot when Clinton won 55% of the vote, she would claim 73 of the state's delegates, with the rest of the delegation, reflecting the 40% that voted "uncommitted," free to pick their own candidate. This scenario would put Clinton within striking distance of Obama, with 1,677 pledged delegates to his 1,716, and also bolster her argument to superdelegates that she is the voters' first choice, since Clinton would overtake Obama in the popular vote if the two states' votes were counted in full.
But the resolution of the Florida and Michigan problem isn't likely to go totally Clinton's way, and this is a situation where a draw is her loss. Since Obama wasn't on the ballot in Michigan, the committee is unlikely to seat the delegation without apportioning Obama at least some delegates. Even if he got just the 55 uncommitted delegates, he'd pull out of Clinton's reach. The Michigan Democratic party's proposal before the committee would give Clinton 69 delegates and Obama 59, a compromise that Clinton vehemently opposes. The committee, meanwhile, seems to be moving toward a solution that would seat roughly half of each delegation (which is how the Republicans punished Florida and Michigan for moving their contests up). Under that scenario, which DNC lawyers have said is the party's only real recourse, Clinton would gain the larger share of delegates, but not nearly enough to approach Obama.
Part of Clinton's frustration may stem from the fact that she actually holds sway over a large part of the committee, with 13 of the 30 members committed to her, including two who serve on her campaign staff. Obama, by comparison, enjoys the support of just eight members, leaving nine officially uncommitted. But ultimately, many committee members even some of those who have endorsed Clinton have acknowledged that Florida and Michigan should face some kind of penalty for breaking the rules. Few have bought Clinton's argument that the states have already suffered enough, or that the Democrats will have no chance to win the two key states in the fall if their entire delegations are not seated.
"We believe that this ruling has achieved the goal it was designed to achieve," Tina Flournoy, a Rules and Bylaws Committee member who is also a paid staffer on the Clinton campaign, told reporters on a Clinton campaign conference call Wednesday, in support of Clinton's argument that the punishment of the states should end. "I don't think any state is going to be willing to go through what Michigan and Florida have."
On a separate Obama campaign conference call an hour later, one reporter asked David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, why Obama shouldn't be magnanimous, since he can afford to allow both delegations to be seated and still win the nomination, given his large lead in delegates including superdelegates, those party VIPs and elected officials who get their own convention votes and can endorse whomever they please. Obama leads Clinton in superdelegates 320 to her 282.
"What we're interested in is a fair resolution; we don't think it's fair to seat them fully," Plouffe said. "We're not going to support something that gives her too many delegates… We all last year played by the rules. It was only after the fact when they needed the delegates that they tried to change the rules. I don't think you can at the 11th hour change the rules that you try to live by because it benefits you." But Obama's stance on the issue, like his opponent's, has just as much to do with politics as principle; the Obama campaign clearly doesn't want Clinton to close the delegate gap enough that she can possibly convince enough superdelegates to throw their support her way, or give her a chance to claim a victory in the popular vote.
What's more, considering the aggressive tactics of the Clinton campaign, it's easy to see why Obama may not feel like doing his rival any favors. Clinton top strategist Howard Wolfson denied Wednesday that the campaign has had any part in organizing the protests on behalf of Michigan and Florida. But he noted, pointedly, that "given what happened in Florida in 2000 it's understandable that people feel very strongly."
Obama's campaign is claiming "the moral high ground on this issue," and has been actively calling on his supporters not to protest the meeting "for the sake of party unity," Plouffe said. Then again, this may have less to do with principle than cold, hard political math: after all, one generally doesn't protest something that one expects to win. And that should give a pretty good hint of the likely outcome on Saturday.