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December 3, 2007
Michigan Loses Its
Delegates, But Early Primary Jockeying Will Likely Continue
Debbie Dingell looked
glum as she walked out of a meeting of Democrats Saturday morning. And,
why shouldn’t she? The national party had just stripped Dingell’s home
state of Michigan of its entire delegation.
In a move meant to raise
the state’s prominence in the national nominating process, Michigan had
jumped ahead of everyone else in establishing a mid-January primary, and
the national Democratic Party on Saturday made good on a promise to
bring punishment. The Republican Party has already cut the state’s
delegation in half as a result.
long face as a sign of abject defeat could be a bit much, however. State
party insiders say that they expect the national party to reverse course
and seat Michigan’s delegation at the party’s August convention in
Denver. They say that the national party wouldn’t risk losing Michigan,
an important swing state, come November through internal squabbles.
In fact, state party
insiders expected that the national party would initially strip them of
delegates. Everyone involved negotiates for a living, they argued, and
Saturday’s vote was simply part of the long dance that Michigan
Democrats hopes forces changes in the way party candidates are selected.
In doing so, Michigan
has drawn support from a growing national movement that wants to revamp
the way parties choose presidential candidates. The old system, they
say, is broken and gives too much prominence to states with small,
But if Michigan’s
primary is to mean anything nationally, the state’s legislature put that
at risk by using the bill creating the primary to also turn over voter
information to the parties, and granting them wide latitude in how they
used it. It also made it illegal for anyone else to possess the
information, and created jail time for journalists who might publish
information gleaned from such lists. It was challenged in court by a
couple of prominent journalists and a private voter list consultant, and
two levels of courts threw out the primary. At the last minute, and in
an act of pure judicial activism, the state Supreme Court saved it,
albeit a day after the state’s association of clerks said a fair
election was something they could no longer guarantee.
One of the reasons lower
courts threw out the state’s primary election is also a problem at the
national level. Political parties are private organizations, and the
U.S. Supreme Court has, in the past, ruled that federal regulations
violate their First Amendment right to free association. In short, there
is no mechanism at the federal level to prevent this year’s squabbling
from becoming a regular feature of the American political landscape. In
fact, such a mechanism would likely be unconstitutional.
This becomes more
striking as the race for the Democratic nomination tightens up. Recent
polls have Hillary Clinton slipping in polls in places like Iowa, South
Carolina and New Hampshire.
Over the last 30 years,
the early primaries and caucuses have maintained their luster of
tradition and history, but whether they can still drive the selection
process is questionable. Early states helped set the tone because the
campaigns kicked off earlier, and the intimate nature of both Iowa and
New Hampshire gave the nation a glimpse of how regular Americans might
feel about a candidate. This is the year of the YouTube debate, with a
great many more options to get to know a candidate than through the eyes
of patrons at Mable’s Diner outside Des Moines.
But that could be tested
this year if Barack Obama can maintain his lead in Iowa and pull off an
upset in either New Hampshire or South Carolina. That could infuse his
campaign with all-important cash and organizational energy to pull off a
If that turns out to be
the case, it’s hard to see where the jockeying of states – absent
significant reforms at the national party level – doesn’t get even
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