Tuesday, October 4, 2011

One Reason Why Politics Leaves A Bad Taste In Our Mouths

The twin concepts of "one person, one vote" and "the person with the most votes wins" are simple, easy to understand, and often - but erroneously - thought to be the bedrock underlying our politics.

Think again.

A recent article explains how obama's 2008 campaign took advantage of - and in fact even changed - the convoluted rules that govern the democratic party's primary process.
It is often assumed that Barack Obama used his gifts as an orator and his aspirational rhetoric to energize young and minority voters in a way that allowed him to wrest the nomination from Hillary Clinton, the candidate favored by the Democratic establishment. This is a nice story, but it is not completely true. For one thing, Clinton actually defeated Obama in the popular vote.

It does not really matter who won the popular vote, however, because the Democratic Party does not select its nominee only through a direct election ... To become the party's standard-bearer, a candidate must capture the votes of a majority of the more than 4,000 delegates who are selected to attend the party's national convention ... in 2008, Democratic Party rules made such a feat almost impossible.

Indeed, it appears that the real brilliance of the Obama campaign was to realize fairly early that a true majority was not achievable.

In response to this fact ... the Obama campaign subtly changed the understanding of the rules. It acted as if the nomination would be determined by the delegate count after the caucuses and primaries, regardless of whether an absolute majority had been achieved. What this did was to lower the overall number by more than 800 votes (the superdelegates), and consequently change the threshold of victory.

Since most Americans are unfamiliar with how the nominating process works, this was a fairly easy story to sell. The press for the most part cooperated. (There's a surprise.) Once this fiction was accepted, any other result would be seen as undemocratic. Indeed, Clinton's complaints about this unofficial after-the-fact rules change were portrayed as a divisive form of sour grapes.

Ultimately, and most importantly, the elected and unelected leaders of the Democratic Party accepted the Obama campaign's spin. This was crucial to Obama's success, since a real victory at the convention depended on these superdelegates ignoring the fact that Clinton was the stronger general election candidate in swing states like Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio. In the end, it was the endorsement of these superdelegates -- again, party leaders and elected officials -- that forced Clinton to concede the nomination.
The best part of the story is its concluding paragraph.
The results of the 2010 midterms, however, when combined with recent special election results, indicate that, with Obama at the top of the ticket, the prospects for many other Democratic elected officials are rather dismal. Of course, a lot of these politicians have no one to blame but themselves. I suspect, nonetheless, that they are feeling more than a twinge of buyer's remorse.
I don't know how the republican primaries work. I wouldn't be surprised if they also contain some little-known rules that allow the power brokers to have a disproportionate say in who the final nominee is. And of course there is the Electoral College, which allows for the possibility that the person who receives the majority of the popular vote will not become president.*

For me, the bottom line of all this is that there is an ingrained tendency in American politics going all the way back to the 1780's that gives lip service to the notion of democracy, but that contains an element of elitism in that the 'ruling class' thinks they know better than the common folk.

And I'm not so sure that's a bad thing. After all, I know better than most of the people around me. Now if I could just get appointed Emperor...

* There have been four presidents elected without winning a majority of the popular vote.
  • John Quincy Adams who lost by 44,804 votes to Andrew Jackson in 1824
  • Rutherford B. Hayes who lost by 264,292 votes to Samuel J. Tilden in 1876
  • Benjamin Harrison who lost by 95,713 votes to Grover Cleveland in 1888
  • George W. Bush who lost by 543,816 votes to Al Gore in the 2000 election. 

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