Winner Take Nothing?

April 09, 1992

George Bush won three primaries and got 87 delegates to his opponent's 9 on Tuesday. Bill Clinton also won three primaries, but his opponents received the majority of delegates, 189-163. The Democratic presidential race remains a muddle.

Clearly, the Republicans know how to settle things early in their presidential primaries. In most states the party follows the winner-take-all formula of American tradition. Democrats use proportional representation in every state. That is why Governor Clinton, despite his victories Tuesday, despite the fact he has won primaries in the Northeast, the Middle West, the West and the South, must continue to campaign full tilt, probably enduring attacks from Democrats that will hurt him in November, for another two months.

If Democrats played by the winner-take-all rule, Governor Clinton would have counted about 1,830 delegates Tuesday night, instead of his 1,267. It takes 2,145 to be nominated. By yesterday, if Mr. Clinton had been only 300 votes away from nomination, you can be sure plenty of the 600 or so uncommitted super-delegates (officeholders and party officials who may support whomever they choose and who know how important it is to them to support a potential president early rather than late) would have rushed to get on the Clinton Express before it pulled out of the station.

But proportional representation politics means many super-delegates will wait and watch as the Clinton Local chugs on to Pennsylvania and the rest of the primary stops till early June. Jerry Brown, despite his 2-19 record in the primaries, says he is determined to continue the contest. Paul Tsongas is thinking about un-suspending his campaign, having done relatively well in delegate-selection primaries in New York, Wisconsin, Kansas and in Minnesota's "beauty contest," despite not campaigning or spending money. He even beat Mr. Brown in New York and Kansas.

Mr. Tsongas says he feels an obligation to keep his message before the public and the party. Governor Clinton ought to examine that message anew. Part of Mr. Tsongas' appeal to voters is that he is not Bill Clinton and not Jerry Brown. But much of his appeal is based on his message of no-nonsense economics. If Mr. Clinton can demonstrate in a convincing way that he understands the importance of that message and can in an intellectually honest way incorporate it into his own campaign, he would greatly improve his chances to score the overwhelming victories that he needs.

Can he do that in a way satisfactory to Mr. Tsongas and his constituency? Can he overcome the doubts about his character that so many voters still express? These remain the unanswered questions. Even if Governor Clinton cannot broaden his appeal, he probably will win his party's nomination -- the delegate arithmetic is still in his favor. But that nomination will not be worth nearly as much as it would be if he embraced Mr. Tsongas' message.

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