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How to Choose the Democratic Nominee


The Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana primaries are over and the situation has returned to the status quo ante. Senator Obama's leads in selected delegates, popular votes and contests won. The remaining six primaries are unlikely to significantly change this landscape. It is time to consider how to settle on a nominee. Both candidates have put forward their criteria for deciding. Sen. Barack Obama cites the relevant measure of merit, his lead in selected delegates, as well as leads in the popular vote and number of primary and caucus victories. He contends that if he maintains these leads when the last delegates are selected -- and mathematically that is close to certain -- he should be nominated. Senator Hillary Clinton counters that she has won all the big states needed to win in November and therefore she is the most electable and should be nominated. She also wants to selectively count the results from unsanctioned primaries in Michigan and Florida that both campaigns agreed not to count when her nomination seemed more certain.

How should these claims be evaluated and what other factors should be considered? First, much of Sen. Clinton's big state argument is dubious. At the most absurd she is claiming that her win in Massachusetts means that Sen. Obama cannot win that state in November against Sen. McCain and that she could not win Illinois. And one has to declare Illinois, North Carolina and Georgia to not be big states. Further, her claim to nomination assumes a solution to the Florida and Michigan disputes that will not punish those states in some manner, such as reducing their delegate count, and not giving Senator Obama any share of the Michigan delegates because he was not on the ballot. If the contest in November is close, the focus should not be on all the states won in Democratic primaries and caucuses but on the states needed to defeat Senator McCain. Chris Cillizza' in his "The Fix" column in the Washington Post has identified 10 states in
contention based on the 2004 results and subsequent events. Two (electoral votes) were won by Sen. Kerry but could swing to McCain: New Hampshire (4) and Minnesota (10). I would add Wisconsin (10) to this list given the narrow Kerry victory.

By contrast, Cillizza cites eight states won by President Bush that could swing Democratic: Missouri (11), Ohio (20), Colorado (9), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), Iowa (7) Virginia (13) and Florida (27). President Bush won 286 electoral votes in 2004, 16 more than the 270 needed. McCain cannot afford to lose Ohio or Florida or a combination of, say, Virginia and Colorado unless he can win In New Hampshire, Minnesota or Wisconsin to offset the losses. So Sen. Clinton's claim to be more electable is that she can win Ohio or Florida without losing Minnesota or Wisconsin or, in the case of Ohio, also losing New Hampshire. By contrast based on the primary results, Sen. Obama can claim greater strength to hold Minnesota and Wisconsin and win in Missouri, Iowa, Virginia and Colorado. Based on these criteria, Sen. Obama would seem to have more possibilities to pick up the needed electoral votes without relying on unreliable Ohio and Florida.

Another consideration is who has proven the best capability to run a cost effective national campaign. Senator Obama has proven that he can put together a strategy to win the measure of merit in a campaign -- delegates in the primary and caucus states. There is every reason to believe he can succeed with a focus on electoral votes and target the funding to achieve this. By contrast, the Clinton campaign had no strategy beyond "Super Tuesday" and seems to have lacked fiscal discipline.

A final consideration is the likely coat-tail effect of each candidate. Here the case for Sen. Obama seems strongest. Most Democratic candidates, especially those in states with close contests seem to favor Sen. Obama, hence the endorsements of Governors Bill Richardson (NM) and Tim Kaine (VA) and Senators Claire McCaskill (MO) and Amy Klobucher (MN), all possible swing states. The fear is that a Sen. Clinton nomination will rally the conservative base to the detriment of down ballot Democrats. There is some historical evidence to support this fear. President Clinton did well in the elections of 1992 and 1996 but the Democratic Party did not prosper. During the Clinton years the Democrats lost control of the House and Senate as well as several governorships and state legislatures.
In short, it appears that Sen. Obama will have a clear lead in selected delegates, popular votes and states won. But even if the race was close enough to be called a tie, Sen. Obama wins the critical criteria of a greater probability to put together 270 electoral votes, a better campaign and fund raising organization and a better chance to bring a greater number of Democratic members into Congress.