Like the Christmas holidays, the race for the White House seems to start earlier every election cycle. And 2008 is not disappointing boys and girls looking for sugarplums in their presidential news stockings. The fast-paced start to next year's election — in terms of money, candidate travel and media attention — could run circles around even the speediest elf.
Prospecting for early clues about who might become the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a growing cottage industry. The media — not surprisingly — focus heavily on the money side of the equation. It's easy to quantify and fits nicely into their horserace paradigm. While delegate selection rules and the timing of primary schedules receive less attention, this critical part of choosing the next president is a less understood component of winning the nomination for both parties.
For 2008, due to early dates of many primaries and caucuses and the unique nature of delegate selection in each state, some interesting trends are starting to emerge. Over the next couple of weeks, I will focus on these structural features of the delegate selection process and how its peculiarities uniquely shape the 2008 race for each party's candidates. This week I examine the Democrats.
Political consultant Jim Ellis, who writes a subscription-based election commentary for the PRIsm Information Network, has developed one of the most fascinating analyses of state primary and caucus schedules. Mr. Ellis's breakdown of the delegate selection process offers some thought-provoking insights for those interested in early 2008 handicapping.
How delegates get selected is not well understood. The Democrats' process is heavily weighted toward "proportional primaries." Of their 56 contests (which include each of the U.S. states and territories), according to Mr. Ellis's estimates, 35 choose delegates based on a proportional system (the balance use caucuses, conventions or other methods). This is very different from the Republican selection process, which is tilted heavily toward caucuses and "winner-take-all" primaries, and holds its own unique implications — but more on that next week.
According to Democratic Party rules, all candidates garnering more than 15 percent of the vote divide up some — but not all — of the delegates on a "proportional basis." At this point, it's not hard to imagine how at least Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and maybe others, could pass the 15 percent threshold, meaning a possible broad spread of delegate support going into the convention.
Democrats also name a large number of "unpledged" or "super" delegates. These are largely party insiders and activists whose support is not necessarily linked to who wins a primary. For example, nearly a quarter (23 percent) of the delegates selected in the first three contests (Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire) are "unpledged" — and can support whomever they choose irrespective of who wins a particular primary or caucus. In other words, winning all the primaries doesn't translate to capturing all the delegates.
These selection process features combined with the large number of early primaries produce significant implications. It means each of the leading candidates could pick up a sizable number of delegates by early February. Democrats will conduct 30 primaries/caucuses by February 9, representing 2,627 of their delegates, well over half. Most of these 30 are proportional primaries, meaning several top-tier candidates could garner large blocs of support. "In years past, with fewer earlier primaries, a clear front-runner would usually emerge from the early contests and then the delegates would fall in line later in the year behind the leader," Mr. Ellis told me. Conventional wisdom suggests the front-loading should produce an early victor, but the unique Democratic rules might produce just the opposite outcome. "At this point it looks like we won't know the nominee until much later in the process than people think," Mr. Ellis said.
Unpledged super delegates might hold the key to who wins the nomination, and that provides an advantage to candidates who know how to play the esoteric delegate hunting game. "I think that gives an advantage to Hillary Clinton," Mr. Ellis said. "Her team is the most experienced at playing the inside game." But the unpledged super delegates could also swing to another candidate if it looks like Mrs. Clinton stumbles as the process unfolds.
All this could make for one of the most interesting and raucous party conventions in decades, with numerous candidates walking in with some support as well as the wild card of super delegates. Should Al Gore keep his cell phone turned on?