March 4 Primaries: One Nomination Settled; One Muddled

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

March 5, 2008

The March 4 primaries ended only one battle for party nomination. John McCain began the day with 1,019 delegates to the Republican convention. With victories in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont, he ended with more than enough to nail down the nomination. Mike Huckabee promptly ended his campaign, allowing McCain to turn his attention full-time to the task of unifying his divided party and convincing disgruntled conservatives that his agreements with them are far more significant than are his sporadic deviations from what they regard as orthodox views. His acceptance speech—which emphasized conservative positions on Iraq, taxes, trade and education, among other issues—was a step in that direction. No doubt his choice of vice presidential running mate will play a central role in this courtship.

On the Democratic side, the future of the spirited contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is shrouded in ambiguity. Clinton’s popular vote victories in Rhode Island, Ohio and Texas halted Obama’s post-Super Tuesday victory streak and gave her a compelling rationale for continuing her campaign. Exit polls indicate that she managed to reassemble the coalition of lower-income, less-educated white voters, older voters and Latinos that gave her important wins on February 5. There is evidence that her attack on Obama as untested in foreign policy and defense made a difference in the days before March 4. The controversy over Obama’s true views on NAFTA was not helpful to him either.

Clinton began March 4 with an overall delegate deficit of 113, and a shortfall of 155 in pledged delegates selected through primaries and caucuses. Despite her popular vote margins, early evidence suggests that the Democratic Party’s complex delegate allocation procedures prevented her from narrowing the gap significantly.

As a result, the arithmetic for Clinton remains daunting. Including the March 4 results, 2,642 pledged delegates have now been awarded—fully 81 percent of the total. To catch up with Obama in that category, she would have to win more than 60 percent of the delegates at stake in primaries and caucuses over the next three months. This appears unlikely at best.

This means that the battle over “superdelegates”—elected and appointed officials who attend the convention and vote by virtue of their office—will intensify. More than 350 remain publicly uncommitted. Almost two-thirds of the superdelegates would have to endorse Clinton to close the gap in pledged delegates in her favor.

While McCain plans and organizes for the general election, the Democratic Party faces the prospect of a race that will continue for at least another six weeks, and probably longer. Modern political history suggests that when a nominating contest goes all the way to the convention, as it did for Republicans in 1976 and Democrats in 1980, the party’s candidate emerges in a weakened condition. These considerations will intensify pressure on the superdelegates to make a judgment as to the party’s stronger general election candidate, and then to coalesce well before the convention. The same dangers will intensify pressure on the Democratic National Committee to forge some reasonable resolution of the continuing controversy over the Michigan and Florida delegations, which were selected in primaries whose timing violated party rules. The alternative to prudent foresight may well be controversy and chaos.