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Clinton and the Delegates: A Friendly Reply to Rachel Maddow

01/30/2009 09:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rachel Maddow wrote a thoughtful, reasoned piece on Huffington Post this week (here) about the Michigan/Florida mess and the chances that Hillary Clinton goes all the way to the convention. One thing in her otherwise fine analysis didn't ring so clear:

After the primary calendar has ended, Clinton's campaign can only justify or explain her staying in the race if she makes the case that the Democratic Party still has not chosen a nominee conclusively. Clinton needs an argument that the game should go into extra innings. Overtime. Bonus round. Detention. Whatever.

On the one hand, Rachel's right that Democrats won't have a conclusive nominee when the final contests end on June 3. As of now, the magic number of delegates to win - minus the 2.3 million Americans who voted in Michigan and Florida (and they were real Democrats, not "Second Life" avatars) - is 2,026. Adding the delegates of Michigan and Florida brings the needed number to 2,210.

Neither Obama nor Clinton can get to either of those magic numbers based on pledged delegates alone. Absent any movement by the so-called super delegates, Maddow is correct that they'll be no conclusive nominee by the end of primary voting.

After acknowledging this reality, Maddow writes that Clinton will then need "extra innings. Overtime. Bonus round. Detention. Whatever."

Au contraire! The nominee isn't determined until two-thirds of the delegates are in hand, period, even if it takes multiple ballots at the party convention to get them. Without two-thirds, the game remains in regulation, so her analogy doesn't fit.

This is not a matter of semantics. Too many people promote the faulty impression that Democratic Party rules somehow say, in essence, that the nomination goes to the candidate who merely comes closest to the required number of delegates. The rules say no such thing. This isn't "The Price Is Right" TV show, where you only have to do better than the other person.

Besides, a candidate not getting their party's nomination prior to the convention isn't novel, and nominating rules exist for that reason. Nobody is guaranteed a coronation, as Hillary herself has learned.

It took FDR several ballots at the 1932 Democratic convention to secure the nomination. In 1952, Adlai Stevenson didn't even participate in any primaries and had no delegates. He beat a candidate who arrived at the convention with hundreds of actual delegates -- yet not the required number to win. After several ballots they moved toward Adlai, who won the nomination and ultimately lost that fall to the hugely popular war general Dwight Eisenhower.

In 1980, Obama's highest-profile supporter, Ted Kennedy (with the help of a young Joe Trippi), famously urged delegates of President Jimmy Carter to switch to him at the convention; Carter held on to the nomination.

When Clinton casually floated the same idea two months ago, the Obama crowd in the media howled at the suggestion. Liberals didn't ridicule a man 28 years ago for trying the tactic, but sure belittled the hell out of a woman in 2008 for mentioning it.

We're Democrats. Nominating fights define us. It's how and why we're progressive. We air it out, and we have two high quality candidates still standing, albeit one on the ropes. It is condescending to think that Clinton should have already stepped aside (these demands began months ago) out of deference to the senator from Illinois.

The point, however, isn't about blatant sexism, or her stubbornness. It's that the nominee isn't the nominee until they officially cross the finish line. Any legitimate maneuvers by candidates prior to that are not dirty pool, they're the system as the political parties designed it and redesign it every four years. It's a fine and meaningful enterprise, even if sometimes built wrong.

Take the Democrats' system of delegate selection. The super delegates were created after 1980 to be free of constraint. They're elected leaders and are supposed to "sanctify" the results of the voters and make sure we don't accidentally choose a loser. Not sure I buy the idea, but that's the reasoning behind their existence.

As for the way dems divvy up regular "pledged" delegates, it's proportional in each state. If the dems ran primaries on a winner-take-all basis like they once did, and like the electoral vote is handed out in the general election, Clinton would have already won the nomination with over 2,000 delegates. She beat Obama in Ohio by a whopping 237,000 votes, but out of 141 pledged delegates at stake she won just nine more than he did. Hey, that's a screwy system no matter who's ox is getting gored.

Democrats do it that way, so it's strictly a mental exercise to imagine otherwise. It's worth noting, though. Mental exercises put things in perspective.

Frankly, all of those undeclared super delegates across the country could hold a press conference en masse tomorrow and announce that enough of them were coming out for Obama to put him over the top, ending the whole thing. They've had ample opportunity. Maybe they will and maybe they won't. They haven't yet.

So is he the nominee? Not quite. Is he damn near the nominee? Obviously. He's on the precipice, has been for some time, and I look forward to voting for him in November. It will take all hands on deck -- those Clinton supporters included -- to keep John McCain from a third Bush term.

Obama knows it, which is why he's lately taken to praising her profusely. Seating Florida and Michigan delegates (an idea the media and Obama supporters have foolishly trashed for months) also helps the dem nominee with those states in the general election, and he knows that, too. More than anything, he knows that the two of them got the same number of votes fighting for this nomination, damn near 18 million apiece.

Funny: as in olden days, before women finally got the right to vote in 1920, it's the man who again covets a woman's dowry...in this case her political dowry.

In short, Rachel, it's "game on" until one has the required delegates or one quits.

I don't know the politics of Eli Manning, star quarterback of the football New York Giants, but after this year's last minute Super Bowl win against the Patriots, I suspect he'd appreciate the concept.

POSTSCRIPT: Friday afternoon it was widely reported that Clinton said the following in response to a newspaper editorial board question about getting out of the race:

People have been trying to push me out of this ever since Iowa...It is unprecedented in history...Historically that makes no sense...My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, in June, in California. I don't understand it.

Presuming the inelegance of the remark was not borne of a dark heart (and the full context of the quote suggests it wasn't), it's nonetheless the kind of moment that could speed up the endgame in this charged climate.

On a related note, The New York Times reports this on its website Friday night regarding a well-known son of the late Bobby Kennedy:

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has endorsed Mrs. Clinton, defended her remarks in a telephone interview Friday evening. "I've heard her make that argument before," Mr. Kennedy said, speaking on his cell phone as he drove to the family compound in Hyannis for the holiday weekend. "It sounds like she was invoking a familiar historical circumstance in support of her argument for continuing her campaign." He said his support of Mrs. Clinton has not wavered.