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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.


Interpreting Dingell’s 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, homogenous populations.


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 massive upset.


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 worse.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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