How the Democrats’ primary process hurt Hillary
It’s now virtually certain that Barack Obama will be the Democratic presidential nominee and Hillary Clinton will return to her day job in the Senate — wondering what she could have done differently in her ill-fated campaign for the White House.
Strategies, tactics and issues aside, Hillary would be the presumptive nominee today if her party’s primary rules had included a winner-take-all system like the Republicans, instead of the “no one left behind” delegate allocation system that says the loser should not go home empty-handed.
Under the Democrats’ proportional system, delegates are awarded among the candidates in direct proportion to the vote each receives in the congressional districts, with some portion based on their share of the statewide vote.
In the winner-take-all system, used by Republicans, the candidate who sweeps a state primary, even by a single vote, wins all its delegates, statewide and districtwide. But liberal Democrats are repulsed by what they consider to be an undemocratic, Darwinian, survival-of-the-strongest system that quickly eliminates the weaker candidates.
People who have crunched the numbers of the 45 or so primaries and caucuses held thus far figure Hillary would have a 400-delegate lead today under winner-take-all. Instead, she was 332 delegates short of the 2,025 needed to clinch the nomination, compared to Mr. Obama, who was 180 short of grabbing the prize.
In the end, the proportional system worked against her strength in the big, delegaterich states, which she consistently carried, and worked for Mr. Obama who racked up his larger total by winning in many of the smaller states.
Looking back, her list of big state victories was impressive: California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. In a winner-takeall system, they would have pushed her well ahead of her rival. But the proportional rule that gave him his share of the vote.
This is not to say Mr. Obama did not win in some sizable states, too. His list off 28 victories includes his homestate of Illinois as well as Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia, Wisconsin, Washington state, Colorado, Connecticut, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
So while the news media focused on big state battles, he patiently and quietly kept winning in a lot small states, too, from Hawaii to Delaware — racking up his delegate numbers, and by impressive percentages.
A survey of Mr. Obama’s stateby-state vote totals shows him winning at least 16 primaries by between 60 percent and 80 percent margins, and boosting his delegate count proportionately. Outside Arkansas, which she won by 70 percent, Hillary never broke into the 60s.
Throughout the year’s primary battles, I always made it a habit of asking Clinton supporters whether they believed it would have been far better for their party to have switched to winner-take-all. The answer was usually the same: no. The proportional system was “fairer,” it rewarded front-runners and second-tier candidates, giving them a chance to build support as they became better known to their party, they told me.
Now, I find more and more Democrats — especially Hillary’s supporters — regretting this system that produced an interminable nominating process that proved costly, divisive and politically exhausting.
The Democrats were being seen as the party that couldn’t get its act together, and were struggling to produce a nominee, while Republicans had picked their strongest candidate early and were gearing up for their convention and the general election to come.
Former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, who supports Mrs. Clinton, is among those who say he has changed his mind. The GOP’s winner-take-all is far more efficient, fairer and better for the party over the long term, he told me.
Last week, I asked the same question of veteran Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, who also backs Hillary. After first saying she wasn’t sure, she replied, “Yes, I would go to winner-takeall,” recognizing it would have given her candidate a prohibitive lead at this point.
My guess is that this is only the beginning of a partywide debate over the proportional system that still has its diehard supporters who argue it levels the playing field somewhat so lesserknown candidates have a chance against better-known, better-finance candidates with high name recognition.
Hillary had all three of those attributes and in the beginning appeared to be the likely nominee who would sweep the early contests and wrap up the nomination by February.
But in the end, Mr. Obama was helped by the proportional delegate system that rewarded him even in states that he “lost” as well as in the nearly 30 states he won in the South, West, Midwest and parts of the Northeast.
For now, it appears the losers want to switch to winner-take-all and the winners think the present system is as good as it gets.
Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.