Jumping the line

February 20, 2008
    With the Democratic primary race still tight, and discussion now centering on delegate totals and a possible convention fight, commentators have ramped up their criticism of the decisions by Democrat leaders in Florida and Michigan to jump the primary line, moving up their voting dates before Feb. 5 at the expense of losing their delegates to the Democratic convention. But the critics are missing the point: The two states have accomplished their goal, wildly succeeding in capturing influence in the primary process.
    The controversy can be traced back to the decisions by Florida and Michigan to flout the national parties’ rules banning all but four states from holding their primaries or caucuses before Feb. 5.
    These states acted after learning the difficult lessons of the 2004 election: Both parties’ nominees were likely to be effectively selected after only a small fraction of the voters had their say. John Kerry — who was treading water in the polls a few months before — appeared to lock up the nomination very shortly after New Hampshire’s balloting. Most of the candidates didn’t even stick around for the later primaries.
    In order to enforce their primary rules, which primarily benefited New Hampshire and Iowa, both national committees made powerful threats. The Republicans claimed they would not recognize 50% of the delegates selected by any state which held a primary too early. The Democratic Party stripped away all the delegates, including superdelegates, from the offending states, and claimed it would withhold votes from candidates who campaigned in any of these states. Driving home the point, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean stated boldly that Florida’s primary “essentially won’t count.”
    Looking back, it’s clear that the parties’ threats backfired. First of all, Both Florida and Michigan had tremendous impact on the Republican primary process, despite losing half their delegates. Michigan extended Mitt Romney’s run, thereby preventing the conservative movement from shifting to a different challenger. Had Romney failed to capture Michigan, the state that elected his father to the governor’s office, his campaign might not have even survived until Super Tuesday.
    Florida’s role was even bigger — the state can receive a heaping portion of credit for John McCain’s triumphant performance on Super Tuesday. Rudy Giuliani bet his campaign on succeeding in Florida. He tried to make a case for his failures in the other early states by claiming he did not campaign in those states, but his third place finish in Florida proved decisive; he dropped out of the race immediately, publicly backing McCain.
    The ripple-effect of Giuliani’s exit was enormous. His supporters appear to have migrated to McCain, helping propel McCain to his overwhelming victory Super Tuesday. If Giuliani had stayed in the race — a likely occurrence if Florida had voted on Super Tuesday or later — he would have at least kept some of the voters, perhaps helping to throw a number of important states — and a lot more delegates — into Romney’s corner.
    On the Democratic side, Florida and Michigan originally appeared to have shot themselves in the foot. Because the DNC has (so far) upheld its threats of stripping these states of all their delegates, they could be left out of the first contested convention in recent years. The states that held on to their late votes, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, are now being seen as critical in deciding the Democratic nominee.
    However, with the election so close (and given the fact that the Democrats do not want to be seen as disenfranchising two critical electoral college states) both Michigan and Florida now seem to have been strengthened by recent events. Howard Dean has already discussed re-running the primaries. If such a re-vote takes place, the states will have greatly increased their power. They will both be able to play a vital role in tipping the balance and deciding the Democratic winner.
    Even if they do not re-run the vote, and the race goes to a deadlocked convention, Michigan and Florida will be on everyone’s minds. Hillary Clinton, who effectively ignored her party’s threats — and then won the uncontested elections in both states, as hers was the only name on the ticket — will be pushing to seat the states’ delegates. If there is a convention battle, this will be the critical issue, one that could decide who will be the party’s nominee.
    Michigan and Florida have been held up as offenders, willingly breaking the rules and possibly costing their voters seats at the convention. But in the end, they have shown that the two political parties do not have the power to truly threaten any state. Rather than being sidelined from the nominee selection, Michigan and Florida delegates have instead managed to put themselves right in the center of the action.
    Joshua Spivak is a lawyer and research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.