A Superfight Down the Road

Contrasting ideas of fairness will create different outcomes for the Republicans and Democrats.

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It's appropriate that our two major political parties are depicted as different animals. Forty days and forty nights out from the Iowa caucuses, the elephant and the donkey seem very different indeed. The Republicans have been split on attitudinal lines, between varying strains of conservatism and moderation. And their delegate selection rules, based on their notion of fairness, have produced a clear and unambiguous outcome. The Democrats, in contrast, have been split on demographic lines, between blacks and Latinos, old and young, upscale and downscale. The delegate selection rules, based on their notion of fairness, are heading the party not to a clear outcome but to a conflict in which the losing side is likely to feel profoundly aggrieved.

Winner-take-all is the Republican idea of fairness. The party seeks unity and uniformity and doesn't encourage dissent. You know the rules in advance, and if you come out ahead, you get the big prize. Thus, few Republicans thought it unfair when John McCain got all 58 delegates from Missouri on Super Tuesday after beating Mike Huckabee there 33 to 32 percent. McCain has gotten only a minority of all primary votes and has fared poorly in caucuses, but he has clinched the party's nomination, however long radio-talk-show hosts carp and Mike Huckabee campaigns.

For the Democrats, the carping may just be starting. The Democrats' idea of fairness is proportional representation. This makes sense for a party that typically has been made up of disparate minorities. The current rules came out of the 1988 contest, in which Jesse Jackson felt his voters were underrepresented. The problem is that the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has been so close that neither has built a significant lead—or is likely to do so in the contests still to come.

The result is that the nomination could be determined by the 792 or so superdelegates—public and party officials—who were given convention votes in the early 1980s as a potential check on overenthusiastic and naive primary voters and caucusgoers. The combination of scrupulous proportionality of elected delegates and the generous profusion of superdelegates sets the party on a collision course. Clinton currently trails Obama slightly in elected delegates and may do so even if she wins the Ohio and Texas primaries March 4. But she currently leads among superdelegates, and so it's possible that group could give her the nomination even while she is lagging in primaries and caucuses.

If that's not problematic enough, Clinton has called for reinstatement of the Michigan and Florida delegates stripped from those states by the Democratic National Committee for holding their primaries too early. Obama took his name off the Michigan ballot; Clinton left hers on and defeated "uncommitted." She carried Florida by about the margin she held in national polls then, a margin that has vanished since.

Florida, Florida, Florida. You can hear the cries now, echoing the Florida controversy of 2000. "Count every vote" will be Clinton's cry—the argument Al Gore's forces made. "Don't change the rules after the game is played" will be Obama's cry—the argument of the Republican lawyers. The Florida fiasco polarized the nation because the arguments that each side made were in line with its basic ideas of fairness.

Obama fans will see this as an attempt to steal the nomination from the people's choice. Clinton fans will argue that denying representation to the nation's fourth- and eighth-largest states, both closely divided in the past two elections, would be political suicide. The Democrats' determination to design a system all their constituencies would consider fair threatens to produce a confrontation whose result, whatever it is, will be bitterly regarded by large and important party constituencies as profoundly unfair.