03/05/2008 05:31 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary's Road To Nowhere (via Florida & Michigan?)

The story lines and spin coming out of yesterday's semi-super Tuesday are enough to make your head, well... spin. The Clinton camp would have us believe that the results in Ohio and Texas fundamentally altered the trajectory of the primary, while the Obama team would have us believe that yesterday was but a hiccup on the way to the nomination. What seems clear, at least in our post-March 4th hangover, is that Clinton has all the rationale she needs to continue her campaign. The problem remains that despite any perceived swing in momentum--and barring any improbably lopsided routs in the states to come--Clinton is still mathematically unable to capture the pledged delegate lead without any electoral shenanigans.

Even Clinton (probably) realizes that she cannot wrest the nomination away from Obama if she trails by any significant margin of pledged delegates (let's say 50-100 delegates). Central to her campaign, then, will be either the seating of the Florida and Michigan delegates, or at least a re-do of the two primaries. Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the man who helped deliver his state for John McCain, has even suggested that his state would foot the bill for this electoral mulligan. How sweet of him! But this isn't a decision in which a Republican governor should have a hand, regardless of how willing he is to open his taxpayers' pocketbook. If Crist's plan were adopted, perhaps the greatest irony of this election season would be that the two states which were supposed to have the least clout in the process might wind up having the greatest.

Let that sink in for a minute. In a calculated move against warnings and admonitions from the party, Michigan and Florida moved up their primaries to give themselves a greater say in the nomination of the Democratic candidate. In response, the DNC stripped the scofflaw states of their delegates. Even Bob Kerrey, one of Clinton's high-profile boosters has rejected the notion that Florida and Michigan could be put back in play: "You don't change the rules in the middle of the game. Period. . . . No new vote and no new caucuses, either. Just stick to the rules that they agreed to."

Of course, the irony here is that had Michigan and Florida abided by the DNC's rules, both states would have wielded considerable power in the nominating process. And, in keeping with this year's drawn out Democratic fight, the later their primaries, the more significant they would be. So, instead of a key swing state like Florida having a meaningful say in the process, Texas, a perennial GOP stronghold, was vaulted to the position of King/Queen-maker.

The upshot is that if the DNC decides to ratify the votes in Michigan or Florida (a result which appears unlikely), the initial threat to strip their delegates will have been entirely hollow. On the other hand, if the Michigan and Florida votes are rescheduled, these states will have actually benefited from their malfeasance. This is not to say that there is no role whatsoever for the Florida and Michigan delegations at the Democratic Convention. Even Obama would need the eventual support of both states in the general election. So the fairest and most probable outcome is the seating of the Florida and Michigan delegates with their votes distributed according to some sensible rubric: in proportion to the national popular vote or to the total pledged delegates.

During last night's election coverage, NPR noted that Florida and Michigan officials are in discussions with the DNC about how to ensure the states' participation at the convention while adhering to the spirit of the rules that they broke. The problem for Clinton is that she cannot hope to win the nomination without Florida and Michigan breaking decisively for her--a result which would be accomplished by seating both states' delegates in accordance with their prior votes--even though that argument has been a loser in the press and among Democrats nationally. In fact, if the Obama camp plays its cards right, it should be able to make some serious political hay out of any effort by Clinton to reopen the Michigan/Florida debate. Perhaps the Clinton team has some internal polling showing that Democrats react favorably to suggestions that these states should be seated, but until I see those numbers, I'm inclined to think that the argument is a dud.

So, who were the winners last night? Not only Clinton, but McCain and his strange bedfellow, Rush Limbaugh, who had instructed Republicans to hold their collective nose and vote for Clinton in an effort to prolong and muddy the Democratic race. Oddly enough, however, last night's silver-lining may belong to Obama. He retains a formidable delegate lead, which will not (or at least, should not) be seriously jeopardized by Clinton's Florida and Michigan gambit. And while his New Hampshire upset loss was roundly seen as a momentum killer that would doom his campaign, the ensuing fight leading to (the real) Super Tuesday and beyond, tested and strengthened him in ways that a waltz to the nomination would not. Similarly, Obama has now faced his first real spate of fear-mongering propaganda, and one has to imagine that his campaign has the smarts and wherewithal to emerge stronger for it, and to win the Michigan/Florida argument, while they're at it.