Why the Rules Mattered In the Nomination Race

Michael P. McDonald
Michael P. McDonald Former Brookings Expert, Associate Professor of Political Science - University of Florida

June 4, 2008

Hillary Clinton was not ready on day one.

The autopsies of her defeat for the Democratic nomination contest all point to a series of early blunders by her campaign. Her campaign plan was simple: leverage her name recognition, early money lead, and organization to win the Super-Tuesday contests, thereby wrapping up the Democratic nomination in early February. As the inevitable winner, she could be the centrist candidate on the Iraq war and tout her experience as a problem solver.

But her over-confident and over-priced campaign consultants failed to recognize that in a “change” election, caucus attenders were not excited by an Iraq war centrist who also happened to be a Washington insider. Clinton’s lack of a plan to effectively contest the caucuses allowed Barack Obama to win what would be the all important delegate race, and more importantly, give him the mantle of momentum while she appeared mired in the mud at a crucial mid-February stage of the campaign.

But she was ready on day two.

She hit her stride late in the game by impressively winning a series of primary contests. All the more remarkable: she did so on a shoestring election-to-election budget while the media wrote her off as a spoiler. With a newfound voice that emphasized she was a populist who would fight for the people, her new message resonated particularly well as the economy continued to falter.

Unfortunately, by the time she retooled her message and got rid of the people who had driven her campaign into the ditch— campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle and chief strategist Mark Penn—it was already too late. Obama had built a nearly insurmountable lead in the delegate count.

It is here that the rules matter.

If states had not moved up or “frontloaded” the date of their primaries and caucuses, under the misimpression that doing so would give them a greater voice in the 2008 nomination, Clinton might be the Democratic nominee.

She would have received more delegates from Florida and Michigan, two states that she would have likely won if all Democratic candidates had vigorously campaigned, but was denied a full slate because these states violated party rules by holding their elections too early. Counting these contests was important for her delegate count and to her argument that she had won more popular votes than Obama.

If states had not frontloaded their primaries and caucuses, she would have recovered from her early stumbles before it was too late. She would have minimized damage from her disastrous February, when Obama racked up an impressive string of victories even in Virginia, where she might have done better given her later strength.

The irony is that Clinton was expected to benefit from frontloading. Only a candidate with name recognition, money, and organization could compete. Lesser candidates like Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson and even John Edwards would be quickly weeded out of the field, leaving her with only one real opponent to dispense with.

The lesson is that frontloading does not well serve the nomination process. Running for president is an unrehearsed drill. Mistakes will be made. Candidates become better as they learn how to campaign and to craft messages that work. Democratic Party leaders will undoubtedly look hard over the next four years at what steps can be taken to even out the flow of the nomination contests.

While these lessons may resound loudly for Democrats, they apply equally well to Republicans. Democrats permitted the process to play out over a longer time by awarding delegates proportionately; Republicans brought their nomination to a faster close by awarding delegates by winner-take-all. John McCain became the inevitable winner of his party’s nomination without even winning a state’s vote majority before his opponents dropped like flies.

While Republicans have delighted in the continued fight among the Democrats, McCain has been in a holding pattern since winning his nomination. Unable to use his time effectively to make headway with the American public, he has incurred problems in his own party. As evidence, 30 percent of South Dakota and Montana Republican primary voters registered a protest vote by voting for someone else.

Perhaps McCain won his party’s nomination too soon. He lost to George Bush in 2000 and has yet to demonstrate that he can run an effective general election campaign. He would have benefited from being more strongly tested, making more mistakes, and learning from them in the primary season. Now, he and his campaign will have to learn on the job in the general election, while they face, in Obama, an opponent who has been tempered in his party’s nomination fire stoked by Clinton.

Plenty of time remains for McCain to make his mistakes and for Obama to make more—and for both to recover before November. Campaigns often become so knee-jerk reactive to criticisms of any mistake that they fail to recognize the value in the lessons that may be learned. The primary election season is thus a valuable period for candidates to plumb their strengths and shore up their weaknesses, and we need to find a way to restore it as such.