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The Clinton Campaign and the "Popular Vote"

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Comments from the Clinton inner circle in the last few days indicate that the Clinton campaign has settled on an end game strategy for the campaign. Are you ready for this? I'm going to go with "no."

Here are the pieces of the puzzle:

* On Saturday, Clinton herself told the Washington Post, "I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next 10 contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan. And if we don't resolve it, we'll resolve it at the convention -- that's what credentials committees are for." That same weekend other Clinton operatives echoed these sentiments, signaling that the issue of Florida and Michigan is far from settled.

* A few days later two of her most powerful supporters, in separate interviews, announced that for Clinton to win the nomination she would have to win the popular vote. Pennsylvania congressman and Clinton-backer John Murtha said, "She has to be ahead in the popular vote to have any chance at all of getting this nomination." And speaking on CNBC, New Jersey Gov. John Corzine said, "I'm a very aggressive supporter of Senator Clinton, but I think you need at least a popular vote." Coming from a campaign as tightly on-message as Clinton's, these comments are not politicians chewing the fat with reporters but clear signals of strategic intent.

Not surprisingly, since it is coming from the Clinton campaign, the plan on offer here is a smart one which makes a strategic gambit with a weak hand. Unfortunately, the most likely outcome is a disaster for the Democratic Party.

Plan element #1: Have your spokespeople back away from the most far-fetched ideas you have been pushing, such as the idea that superdelegates should support you in the end because you won the primaries in "swing" states, or "big" states, or "important" sates, or non-latte-sipping states, or simply because "Obama can't win" (which in the eyes of Obama supporters translates as "because he's black"). Instead, have your people heave a very public sigh and acknowledge that you cannot win without winning the popular vote, which you acknowledge will be tough but not impossible.

Result: Clinton claims the democratic high-ground, and position herself as the underdog in the "real" test of democracy, the "popular vote."

Plan element #2a: Fight like hell to get the Michigan and Florida delegations seated at the convention. This will come down to a fight at the convention credentials committee, which I outlined in a previous posting.

Plan element #2b: Argue that Michigan and Florida should be included in the "popular vote" regardless of whether the delegations are seated at the convention or not.

Result: elements #2a and #2b dovetail on Plan element #1. Clinton sweeps into the convention as the champion of democracy within the party. The fight over seating Florida and Michigan ends in a horrible mess, positioning Clinton to argue that the delegate count is thus fundamentally flawed and superdelegates should respect party democracy by going with the candidate that won the "popular vote," giving her the nomination as the people's choice.

Is this plan viable? Those of you who think Obama has this thing in the bag had better take a close look at some hard numbers. It turns out that, like everything else in the twisted process of the Democratic primary, the "popular vote" is a dicey concept here.

The current total of "votes" cast in caucuses and primaries is:

Obama 12,891,604
Clinton 12,217,745

This gives Obama an edge of over 650,000 votes, which will be nearly impossible for Clinton to overcome. However, if you add in Michigan (where Obama did not appear on the ballot), and Florida (where he did not campaign at the behest of the party), you get:

Obama 13,460,645
Clinton 13,403,104

This makes a razor-thin margin of slightly more than 50,000 votes, which could easily shift over the course of the last primaries. But wait! You're not done yet! Do caucuses count as "votes?" Throughout the campaign this has been a point of contention, with the Obama campaign putting the weight of its effort into caucuses while Clinton has focused on primaries. Clinton and her spokespeople have repeatedly questioned whether caucuses are really "democratic." And public perception has often gone her way, following the lead of the media. For example, Texas was reported as having been won by Clinton. In fact, Texas had both a primary and caucus. Clinton won the primary, Obama won the caucus. When the two results were added together with whatever bizarre calculator the Texas Democratic Party keeps stored in its closet, Obama came out with more delegates, but the story that ran in the media was that Clinton had "won" Texas.

So, let's give Clinton every break she is asking for, and check out what the "popular vote" total is if we include Texas and Michigan and exclude caucuses, counting only votes cast in primaries:

Obama 13,104,492
Clinton 13,243,919

Et voila! Clinton is actually ahead by over 100,000 "votes" right now.

So what does all this mean? It means that if the Clinton campaign presses ahead with the strategy it is clearly signaling, we can expect a political bloodbath at the end of the primary. The geniuses who make the rules for the Democratic primaries have come up with a system so complex and just plain weird that a number that should be as clear-as-day as "the popular vote" is anything but.

These are the facts of the matter. What is my opinion about all of this? First, that the people who designed this process should be sent to their rooms for the next 100 years and put to hard labor of sorting colored jelly beans into different piles. And second, that this process is so idiotic that the "popular vote" is a meaningless concept open to manipulation and spin, which is why what is supposed to counted are delegates. In spite of everything, there were rules that were spelled out to the candidates at the outset of the race by the Democratic Party. Two of those rules were these: (1) the nominee will be decided according to who wins the most delegates, (2) delegates from Michigan and Florida will not be included in the tally. The time to question those rules was before the primaries started, not now. Obama played by those rules. He did not participate in Florida or Michigan, and he made a strategy that focused on winning more delegates by giving significant attention to lots of small states, and states with caucuses where his grassroots activists would do well. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it was a smart plan which played by the rules. He didn't make those rules, he just played well by them. Most important of all, Obama did not pus to exclude Florida and Michigan, that was the Democratic National Committee. What he did do was say, OK, if the rules are that I am not supposed to campaign in those states and that their votes won't count, then I won't campaign there. The Clinton campaign's ploy to cast Obama as the mighty disenfranchiser of these states is disingenuous.

However, I also understand that my take on this will send some honest and sincere Clinton supporters into orbit, and Obama supporters need to understand that there is a rational basis for this. Just remind yourself how you felt in November 2000 when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college. I'm going to guess you were righteous with rage. You might counter that in the presidential election the "popular vote" is not a number subject to manipulation and spin, making the comparison between the national election and the Democratic primary a false one. I agree. But somehow you are going to have to make room in your thinking for Clinton supporters who see it differently.

In all of this, just about the only thing that is dead certain is that if this plays out as it is shaping up to, the end game of the Democratic primary is going to be one ugly soap opera. The most likely scenario? Picture Obama winning the nomination from a convention that cannot even decide who has the right to attend, and ends with hundreds of angry Clinton delegates storming the exits and denouncing their party. Unless something changes very soon, I am thinking of spending August on my yearly trip to the Alaskan wilderness where the only folks I can talk to are wild animals who have never heard of American politics.

Addendum

Feedback I have been receiving indicates that some find it incredulous that Clinton would press ahead with the strategy I have outlined. To address this, I am including the remarks Clinton made at a fundraiser last night in Los Angeles:

"I thought it was Democrats who wanted to count every vote. If we had counted every vote in 2000 Al Gore would be finishing his second term."

"It was a level playing field in Florida, we were all on the ballot...In Michigan we all had the chance to be on the ballot, my opponent chose to take his off."

"We have to either count their votes or allow them to re-vote."

She went on to accuse Obama of thwarting a re-vote in Michigan:

"I don't know what Barack Obama was afraid of, he would have done very well in Michigan."

In his introductory remarks, Rob Reiner added:

"We're Democrats, we let everyone vote. If at the end of the process, there's a candidate who has more votes...When all the dust settles and Puerto Rico has voted, you're going to see that more people voted for Hillary Clinton."

My source on this is Todd Beeton's blog on Direct Democracy, here.