In the Clinton-Obama Race, Someone's Going to Feel Cheated

The Democratic nominating process is about to become decidedly undemocratic.

Obama and Clinton after debating in Los Angeles in January.

Obama and Clinton after debating in Los Angeles in January.

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Way back in January, when democrats seemed to be enjoying their presidential race, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sat on a debate stage in Los Angeles, bursting with praise for each other. "We are both dedicated to doing the best we can do to win the nomination," Clinton said. "But there is no doubt we will have a unified Democratic Party." The crowd loved it. In fact, Democrats were applauding most everything about the race. And why not? It seemed to be shaping up as a pleasant political storm: a motivated base of voters turning out at the polls. Indeed, by February 5—Super Tuesday—48 percent of Democrats said they would be happy no matter which Democrat won.

By last week, Democrats were less joyful. After weeks of warring over the commander-in-chief question—and meeting Obama the Plagiarist and Hillary the Monster—just 34 percent of those voting in Mississippi said they would be happy with either candidate. Not only was the patina gone, but the Democratic Party seemed intent on further sullying itself, hosting an open war—whites, especially women (mostly for Clinton), against African-Americans (mostly for Obama); the wealthy and educated (largely for Obama) against the working class (largely for Clinton). And can the debate sink lower than former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro claiming Obama is being well treated because he's black? Or, after the Obama campaign objected, saying she's being discriminated against because she's white?

Ferraro left Clinton's finance committee. But that's old news. Get ready for the real fight now that the Democratic nominating process is about to become decidedly undemocratic. If Clinton and Obama remain locked in a battle for delegates, as seems likely, they'll have to turn to those 795 superdelegates to make the final decision. About 350 of these elite pols are uncommitted, and they're likely to sit on the fence for a while to be sure they side with the candidate who will win the nomination.

Oh, and by the way, superdelegates want a candidate who can beat John McCain. Consider them the Democratic Party's House of Lords, hearing petitions from Obama and Clinton that come down to the same basic premise: Support me, because I can win. "It's a mess," says a top Democratic strategist unaffiliated with either camp. "Superdelegates don't want to decide this, but they may have no choice."

State counts. So that's what this Great Race has become: an argument, made to the political class. Never mind the voters. Or the pledged delegates. It's about talking points. Team Clinton notes she's winning big battleground states like California, New York, and Ohio that Democrats need to win in the fall. (Can the argument that she has more voters per delegate be far behind?) Team Obama argues otherwise: that he's won important battleground states like Virginia and Missouri and would most likely win California and New York, too. And he might even be able to carry states Democrats don't often win, like Alabama and Colorado. "The key is not who wins the states that the Clinton campaign thinks are important," says Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "They have cherry-picked states, diminished caucuses, and moved the goal posts to create a shifting, twisted rationale for why they should win the nomination."

But here's the point: Nominations are about winning delegates, and Obama now has about 130 more than Clinton. That margin is not likely to shift much, even if Michigan and Florida figure out a quick and fair way to redo their primaries. And if they don't, Clinton says, count the results; the Democratic National Committee and Obama say no way. His name wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan. Prediction: Someone's going to feel cheated. No wonder Clinton keeps talking about that Dream Team ticket, as if a two-for-the-price-of-one scenario might help.

Forget about it. And since baseball season is almost upon us, allow a final superdelegate analogy. Imagine the seventh game of the World Series. In a thrilling contest, Team A beats Team B, 10-9. But as that final out is made, the umpires gather behind home plate. They decide Team B should win—because its scoring came late in the game, in three big innings that featured four home runs. Imagine the chaos that would ensue. Now imagine the Democratic convention if Team A wins the delegate race but loses the nomination.