Oval Office Thunderdome: The One-Vote Doctrine

At what point in our democratic system did a close defeat at the polls constitute possible victory? Was it in 2000, when our nation seemed on the verge of descending into an ideologically driven judicial autocracy? Or was it earlier? Say, 1824, when John Quincy Adams managed to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote by more than ten points to Andrew Jackson? No matter. This article isn’t about previous elections or nominating contests. It’s about the massive freight train racing down the tracks, threatening to splinter the Democratic Party at their convention, along with any chance their subsequent nominee has of defeating Senator John McCain in November.

The campaigns of Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been trading successes and failures now for two months. Every moment when one candidate has been poised to secure the nomination, the other has pulled off a crucial victory or series of victories that leaves the issue undecided. Consequently, national press, analysts, pundits, and especially the Clinton campaign (currently trailing in pledged delegates), have all raised the possibility that there will be no clear-cut frontrunner by the convention. The two campaigns mired in a tie, the nominee will have to be chosen by the superdelegates. That word, tie, has become more prevalent and grating, since before Senator Clinton staved off defeat by rallying in Ohio and Texas. But, there will be no tie.

By the time of the convention in August, even if Clinton and Obama continue to trade victories in primaries and caucuses, there will be one candidate who leads in both pledged delegates and popular vote. That candidate should garner the support of the superdelegates and should be the nominee. The reason for this is simple, despite how complicated so many people have made this race. Even if a candidate wins a contest by one vote, that candidate wins. This is the central tenet of democratic elections. The candidate with the most votes gets the job, or the nomination, as the case may be. In order for democracy to work, and maintain its legitimacy, the process must remain that simple.

But members of the Democratic Party have raised the possibility that the party could ignore the will of its voters, and its elders could throw the nomination to the candidate who comes in second in both pledged delegates and popular votes. This is singularly ridiculous, and if the Democratic Party adopts this course, they risk being reminded by voters in November just how democracy is supposed to work.

Of course, this could all be moot. Something could break either Obama’s or Clinton’s way, but that doesn’t appear likely. As things stand today, after the Wyoming caucuses, Senator Obama holds a lead of over 100 pledged delegates over Senator Clinton. Various news networks flip the superdelegate count between the two. The nature of the superdelegates makes tracking their support difficult, as they are not beholden to primary outcomes. Obama also leads in the popular vote. (Popular vote totals are not used towards nominating a candidate other than being represented at the convention by pledged delegates. They remain significant, however, because they are the most direct measure of a candidate’s popular support.)

If things continue as they have, neither Clinton nor Obama will enter the convention with enough pledged delegates to secure the nomination outright. But the math is with Obama. This late in the nominating process, with around 700 pledged delegates yet to be apportioned, Clinton would need to string together a series of extraordinary landslides to make up her difference, as none of the Democratic primaries and caucuses are winner-take-all. Even her great revival in Ohio and Texas has still left her trailing.

Since she is behind, one of her arguments has become that she should be the nominee, as she has won primaries in all the big states (Ohio, Texas, New York, California, and a disputed Florida) thus showing she is the candidate best able to win those states in the general election in November. This argument is ridiculous. Any Democratic nominee will win New York and California. No Democratic nominee will win Texas. As far as Ohio and Florida are concerned, no candidate, Democrat or Republican, can truthfully claim an advantage in those states until the votes in November are tallied.

In contrast, Obama points out that he has won the most states so far. To be fair, he knows as well as anyone that a great deal of those states (Utah, Wyoming, Alabama, etc.) will be won in November by McCain. But Obama is the candidate who has that critical advantage in delegates that should be all that matters.

Another strategy the Clinton campaign is beginning to employ is that of the unstoppable ticket. In this scenario, the two candidates being ‘tied’ heading into the convention, Clinton should win the nomination, with Obama bringing up the rear as the vice-presidential nominee. The argument here is that such a ticket is unstoppable in the fall, and gives the voters who have supported the party what they really want: both names on the November ballot. This strategy is a ploy designed to distract from the fact that Clinton is trailing, and will still be trailing come August. She is making all the arguments possible to convince a divided Democratic electorate that they can have it both ways. Never mind what role Obama would play in her administration, this strategy is a tacit admission that Obama has more popular support, and her only way to the nomination is to sell the superdelegates on the viability of her candidacy. That is all.

If the superdelegates of the Democratic Party do decide to hand the nomination to the candidate that trails in pledged delegates, based on flawed presumptions of electability, starry-eyed visions of a political dreamteam, or, lord help us, back-room machine politics, they will be denying the one true base of legitimate democracy. There is, unfortunately, precedent for such behavior, but there is never any justification. A one-vote victory is still a victory.