Counting On the "Popular Will"
by Tom Rinaldo, Fri Apr 11, 2008 at 05:12:10 AM EDT
Few Buzz terms get thrown about so often or so wildly during this primary season than that noble sounding very democratic phrase; "the popular will". Mostly its use is coupled with demands that it be honored, and dire warnings about the ruin that lies in store for the Democratic Party if "the Popular Will" is "overturned" by Super Delegates at the 2008 Democratic Convention.
When rhetoric is removed from substance however, what remains is a simple assertion, namely a claim that whichever Democratic candidate enters the 2008 Democratic Convention holding a lead in pledged delegates embodies "the popular will", and with that an inherent implicit democratic right to become the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee. Flowing from that assumption come dark warnings voiced by some about efforts to "steal" the nomination from its otherwise rightful heir through some sort of Super Delegate engineered "coup".
To face this assertion at the most basic level; "the popular will" is not referred to anywhere in the Democratic National Committee rules governing the 2008 Democratic Party Convention, nor is it a term with any formal standing in any of the previously agreed upon delegate selection and certification rules governing the current contest. It is an ideal, a noble ideal yes, but not one defined in the rules of the Democratic Party. The criterion for winning the Democratic nomination however is clearly defined, and that involves gaining the support of the majority of the delegates credentialed to vote at the Democratic Convention. People certainly can and do make claims about who possesses "the popular will", but that is subject to debate. It does not automatically equate with a lead in pledged delegates. It is something far less tangible.
The rules of the Democratic National Party, in some regard similar to the United States Constitution, do not provide for our leader to be chosen by a strict one person/one vote criteria. Thanks to the Electoral College (and the Supreme Court) George W. Bush is currently President of the United States, not Al Gore, although no one disputes that more Americans voted for Al Gore than voted for George W. Bush. In turning to the Democratic Party nominating process, Texas is a good case in point. More Texans voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for Barack Obama, but more delegates emerged from Texas pledged to Barack Obama than pledged to Hillary Clinton. What was "the popular will" of America in November 2000? What was "the popular will" of Texan Democrats in March 2008?
Winning the Democratic nomination for President means winning the majority of credentialed delegates to the Democratic Convention. Winning a majority of pledged delegates to that Convention means winning a debate point useful to winning over non pledged delegates toward your side. What it does NOT mean is "winning the popular will". A quantifiable case could be made for determining the "popular will" by adding up all the votes actually cast during the nominating process, if we could ever agree on what votes should be counted, and what to do about caucuses. Leading in "popular votes" of course is another valuable talking point. Though it has no official standing toward determining who wins the Democratic presidential nomination NEITHER DOES LEADERSHIP IN PLEDGED DELEGATES.
There are numerous quirks in how the final pool of pledged national convention delegates gets determined, starting with the horse trading at early caucuses where candidate viability thresholds lend themselves to wheeling and dealing, with some attendees lining up behind candidates who they don't actually support due to tactical considerations. The weight assigned to the votes of caucus goers in some states varies within those states also, with each vote NOT getting counted equally. That is done for any number of supposedly worthwhile reasons, such as encouraging rural participation in the process. That is how Obama got more delegates from Nevada this year than Clinton did although Clinton got more literal votes in Nevada.
Then there are the delegates for the National convention who get chosen by State Democratic Party Convention attendees, sometimes because of the power base and popularity of those individuals, and not necessarily because of the popularity of the candidate that they chose to stand for. All of this is fair and proper, all in accordance with the rules. Even primary votes are not always straight forward, if one is searching for the "popular will" of that state, when a delegate gets assigned for winning a political district by a squeaker in one case and by a mile in another. There is no internal consistency, winner take all can be rejected at the state level but embraced at the district level. And there are also States like Washington where delegates were proportionally allotted by caucuses; though a State wide primary vote with much greater overall participation reflected a dramatically different reading of Democratic voter preferences.
The net result of the myriad of means by which pledged delegates are selected for the Democratic National Convention is the bottom line math indicating who leads in pledged delegates entering that Convention. If the nomination contest isn't close the candidate ahead in pledged delegates will also have the nomination clinched, and will lead in "popular votes" by any criteria chosen to count them. He or she could then claim the moral mandate of "the popular will" and it is unlikely anyone would argue against that.
The purpose of the Obama campaign's claim that a pledged delegate lead equates "the popular will" is to influence undecided Super Delegates. The same purpose holds for claiming to win the popular vote tally once the primaries end. Both claims are talking points, nothing more nothing less. If a candidate can persuasively argue that he or she holds the popular vote lead, it will help that candidate proclaim that his or her candidacy represents "the popular will", as unofficial a standing as that actually is.
But the fact remains; there are no official criteria for claiming "the popular will", and no delegates are awarded for winning it even if we could agree on what it actually is and/or who possesses it. If someone insists on trying to use it for a talking point, I personally think a popular vote count comes closest to reflecting our elusive collective popular will. Neither the popular vote nor the popular will is anything official, which to my mind gives the pairing a certain curious logic on top of the apparent one.
There were political as well as principled considerations at work in both the Clinton and Obama campaigns regarding revotes for Florida and Michigan, both sides pondered the politics, no doubt about it. This is a political contest after all. Without revotes happening Hillary Clinton will make her case that she won the only popular votes that actually were cast in both those states, Obama of course will make a counter case. Both cases are debate points deployed toward winning that elusive mantle called "the popular will", which in turn will be deployed toward winning the very real but also elusive votes of undeclared Super Delegates.
Arguments over the popular vote in Florida and Michigan are related to but also separate from legal issues about the actual seating of those state's delegates. It's no wonder to me that the Obama camp was warmer to considering a new caucus than a new primary for Michigan or that the Clinton camp was firm on seeking a new primary. It is harder to rack up popular votes in a caucus than in a primary, and Obama benefits by the status quo math if Michigan isn't included.
Jay Cost over at Real Clear Politics put together a great interactive spread sheet to spec out which Democratic candidate will be in a better position to claim "winning the popular vote" under a multitude of scenarios. Note that under various plausible and arguably logical ways of approaching it, either Obama or Clinton could come out on top:
We have a system for electing the President of the United States of America and it is not directly based on determining the "popular will". We also have a system for nominating the Democratic candidate for President and it too is not based on mathematically determining "the popular will". Who the hell knows now what the overall Democratic "popular will" would actually reflect in June if it could then magically be measured, factoring in whatever unknowable unknown revelations may yet await us about our candidates and their campaigns?
The bottom line though is simple. If a Democratic candidate for president can marshal enough support during the primary season to win a majority of ALL Democratic delegates, we know our nominee ahead of time. That is what happens in all but our tightest races. The fact that we may not know that this time just indicates that this time we have one of our tightest races. Rules have been established to determine our nominee, and they remain in effect. There will be no coups, just potentially a lot more politics.