Primary politics

Why Maryland's role is secondary

Nomination: A March election date and a small number of delegates conspire to put the state on the sidelines.

December 28, 2003|By Thomas F. Schaller | Thomas F. Schaller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Every four years the presidential primary season rolls around, and the big question in the state is not whether Maryland will be consequential in selecting a nominee, but rather how inconsequential it will be.

Might next year be different? The short answer is maybe, but probably not.

Obviously, the Republicans offer zero excitement: President Bush is unchallenged.

Meanwhile, with 21 states choosing Democratic delegates for the national convention in the six weeks before Maryland has its say on March 2, state Democrats may be reduced to little more than a giant rubber stamp for the putative nominee, who now appears to be former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Yet Dean does have eight challengers, and splitting the Democratic vote nine ways raises the possibility of some subset of the nine candidates waging a prolonged battle deep into the spring, with no clear nominee emerging by the time Montana and New Jersey hold the final two primaries in June.

The specter of a contested Democratic convention in Boston next July - replete with rumors of drafting New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, floor battles to pick the running mate and who-knows-what other political intrigue in a contest for the very soul of the party - is a scenario that Democrats fear almost as much as Republicans wish for it.

But the Democrats-in-disarray scenario is highly unlikely, and for one simple albeit paradoxical reason: There are too many Democrats still trying to stop Dean.

To understand why, let's digress for a brief primer on how the Democratic nomination process works.

Including contests in the states, territories and even among Democrats living abroad - who get seven delegates - there are a total of 56 primaries and caucuses between January 19 and June 8 that choose 3,520 delegates. The remaining 797 votes are cast by what are known as "superdelegates" - former and current elected officials and party leaders. A majority (2,159 or more) of these 4,317 total delegates is needed to win the nomination.

That part is simple enough. Far more complicated is how, and when, these delegates are won.

Because they comprise 36 percent of the delegates needed for a majority, superdelegates have the potential to tip the balance in favor of one candidate or another.

But the irony, says veteran presidential campaign adviser Elaine Kamarck, is that though superdelegates haveautomatic "ex officio" votes by virtue of being members of the party'selected and appointed leadership, they tend to stay on the sidelines until after their respective state primaries. "I can promise you one thing about superdelegates in this process," Kamarck, an expert in the delegate-selection process, predicted at a recent panel in Washington sponsored by the National Journal. "They are followers, not leaders."

Former Vice President Al Gore's surprising endorsement of Dean early this month is a notable exception. As are the endorsement from some of the big names among Maryland's 29 superdelegates: Baltimore's Mayor Martin O'Malley and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings back Dean while Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Steny H. Hoyer have endorsed longtime House colleague, Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. But such decisions are not likely to create an avalanche of superdelegate endorsements. And that means that, as usual, the nomination will be decided by the primaries and caucuses that begin in Iowa.

The translation of those results into delegate counts is no longer winner-take-all, as it was in some states before 1998, nor is it strictly proportional. After the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's campaign in 1984, national party rules established a 15-percent minimum threshold for winning delegates - a benchmark that applies both statewide and within each of the state's congressional districts. So a candidate who fails to get 15 percent support statewide may still do well enough in certain districts to win delegates.

In theory, the threshold, when combined with the district-level assignment of delegates, should prevent a front-running candidate from parlaying narrow statewide victories into huge delegate leads. In practice, however, this year's large field makes it tougher for Dean's pursuers to catch him.

Take New Hampshire, home of the nation's first primary. Recent polls show Dean's support hovering near 40 percent, with none of the other contenders above 15 percent. (Plenty of undecided voters remain, of course.) If these numbers hold on Jan. 27 and the remaining 60 percent is split somewhat evenly among the other eight candidates, Dean could win every delegate in the first primary despite three out of every five votes being cast for someone else.

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