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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chances for old-time convention look good

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Wanna have some fun? Let's speculate that none of the presidential candidates in either party wins enough primaries to wrap up the nomination before the conventions in August and September.

Those too young to remember the last time the conventions were wide open would be entertained, enlightened and appalled at the sight of party leaders and state delegations horse-trading behind closed doors to select their candidates. As scandalous as this might be for some, I don't think it's necessarily cataclysmic because the smoke-filled rooms have produced some good candidates and presidents.

So how likely is a wide-open convention? Far from a certainty, but it's possible, which in itself is startling.

This isn't well understood because the media focus on the primaries has been entirely misdirected. Like the presidential election, it's not the popular vote that counts. All that counts is the number of delegates each candidate corrals. Too many stories simply ignore the delegate count.

To illustrate: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in New Hampshire. But it appears Barack Obama walks away with more delegates. That's because you need to include the preferences of superdelegates -- party bigwigs who vote at the convention for the candidates of their choice. More of those delegates are committed to Obama than Clinton, so the delegate totals from New Hampshire show Obama with 12, Clinton 11 and John Edwards 4, according to It gets even more confusing because every party in every state has its own way of naming delegates, some so arcane it's hard to capture the big picture. Some states give all their delegates to the winning candidate, others portion out delegates among the candidates to reflect the vote. Some states caucus, some name superdelegates and some states send some uncommitted delegates. Winning the Democratic nomination requires 50 percent, or 2,025, of the convention's 4,049 delegates. Looking at the delegate tally as of this writing (after the Nevada caucus and before the South Carolina primary), Clinton has captured 210 delegates, or 54 percent of 386 delegates selected, according to CNN. If she continues to gather delegates at the same ratio, she will be the party's nominee, but not by much. Obviously, there's no way to predict if she can maintain that pace.

On the GOP side, Mitt Romney is leading with 72 delegates, or 46 percent of the 156 delegates selected, according to In other words, none of the Republicans, including Romney, is gathering delegates at the ratio necessary to win the nomination before the convention.

Still, you ask, couldn't it be over after Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when more than 20 states, including Illinois, pick their delegates? Maybe not. If, say, Clinton held at 54 percent after Super Tuesday, she still would be more than 900 delegates short of winning the nomination, according to my estimates. The same holds true on the Republican side. Which means that the selection of the candidates could fall to the later primary states. How refreshing. That's far from the usual practice and not how all those states that moved their primaries up to ridiculously early dates planned it. So, sorry, Illinois and the rest of y'all; you were much too clever for your own good.

One other thing to keep in mind: With the field so wide open, Super Tuesday voters will have to make up their own minds, without worrying about "throwing away their votes" on an obvious "loser." Here's a juicy scenario. Imagine the nomination coming down to the last of the primaries, in June, in states like Montana, New Mexico or South Dakota. The sight of candidates furiously scraping for those few delegates would make Iowa and New Hampshire look like muted afterthoughts. So, we could end up with one or two "wide-open" conventions. If you think the primaries have been divisive so far, wait until you see how Clinton, Obama and the others go after each other if it all comes down to August. Welcome to the politics of mutually assured destruction.

Look on the bright side. Both parties could end up with their strongest candidates, or perhaps a surprise, compromise candidate who isn't even in the race now. Someone who didn't collect all that special-interest money. Someone like Harry Truman, a great president, who no one thought would ever occupy the White House. Or Dwight Eisenhower, who was selected by the GOP convention. Or Abraham Lincoln, who won the nomination in the old "Wigwam" on the banks of the Chicago River. We can only hope.


pathickey said...

No Smoking! I mean it!

Nan E. Statier

Bill Baar said...

I have a feeling for Democrats it's going to mean Al Gore.

Probably paired with Obama.