Obama The ‘Winner’ Changing Rules Of The Game
By Jason Johnson | Published 01/7/2010
One of the best things about being the winner is you often get to re-write the rules of the game. The fact that Barack Obama is trying to re-write the rules of the Democratic primary less than two years after winning the nomination tells us that he is not only interested in staying in power, but that he’s failed to understand part of the magic that got him into office.
It was a mere two years ago – on Jan. 8th – that the Democratic primaries became really interesting. Obama enjoyed a 13-point lead heading into the New Hampshire primary after trouncing Hillary Clinton in Iowa and showing the world that maybe this junior senator from Chicago had some fight in him. Oh yeah, and he was black too!
Then Hillary pulled off the upset, cried crocodile tears on CNN about how much she wanted to win, and took New Hampshire by 3 points, splitting the state’s delegates 9 to 9 with Obama. At this point Clinton began a strategy of winning not only a state’s popular vote, but winning the superdelegates as well, in the hopes of cutting off the oxygen to Obama’s nascent campaign.
In case you need a refresher, superdelegates are elected officials from each state: governors, senators and the like, as well as prominent party activists. Their individual votes, along with the state’s popular vote, determine how many delegates each Democratic nominee receives. The concept made its first splash in the 1984 presidential election as a way to balance power between the regular voter and party activists.
Now the Democratic Change Commission, a group gathered by President Obama, has recommended that the superdelegates be required to vote along with the electoral majority in their state. By trying to take power away from superdelegates, under the cover of healthcare and terrorism noise, Obama is changing the rules of the game and essentially cutting out the chances of another insurgent campaign for years to come.
By having party insiders as part of the voting process, it theoretically compels both outsider candidates and established ones to put effort into campaigning in as many states as possible. If Kansas didn’t have any superdelegate votes, would anyone bother to campaign there? Candidates would only focus on big media markets in their home areas and leave the rest to television.
Superdelegates give lesser known primary candidates a chance to get some face time with important party activists and elected officials that may one day be part of their ground war for the general election. If you get rid of superdelegates, the insider candidate will always win, because entrenched leaders and incumbents have no incentive to change loyalties during an election. In fact, why should they even bother meeting with the ‘new guy’ since he won’t be offering anything for their ‘vote’? Obama and his team probably believes that their plan will increase competition in the primaries but it will likely choke off oxygen to those who don’t already have big name recognition.
Further, it’s not like the Supers have ever ruined an election like the electoral college did in 2000. In every Democratic nomination since 1984 the superdelegate count has more or less gone the way of the popular vote. These party leaders aren’t overturning the popular will. The superdelegates may operate in smoke-filled cloak rooms, but at least the current process requires them to come out in the open for challengers and insiders alike to see. Obama is flirting with disaster by cutting these powerbrokers out of the process; they’ll still be pulling the strings, but now they’ll be harder to influence and less amenable to working with newcomers to the political stage.
These proposed changes wouldn’t take effect until the presidential election of 2016, since barring some monumental collapse Obama is going to be running for re-election in 2012. It does, however, tell us more about how Obama chooses to operate now that he’s the president. The man who claimed to be the ultimate outsider by race and class is changing the rules in a way that will make it harder for the next “Obama” to travel the same road he did.
The commission’s proposed changes now go before the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. Let’s hope that the President and his DNC team reconsider their plans before the Democrats shoot themselves in the foot again.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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