Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Postponing the Kerry Coronation

William Harper


February 9, 2004

In the 2000 primary season, George W. Bush won the pre-primary fundraising race by such large margins that at least one candidate dropped out before the primaries had even begun. And after the crucial South Carolina contest, Bush's margin of victory widened with increasing predictability owing to the Republican Party's preference for winner-take-all primaries.

The media present the Democratic nominating process this year in much the same vein. Feeding off the twin dramas of Governor Howard Dean's collapse and Senator John Kerry's surge in popular support, they seem in some quarters ready to confer the nomination on the Massachusetts liberal. This may well be bad for the Democrats whose greatest need is to mobilize their base of support right through to the general election, something they have failed to do in recent years.

The Democrats' temporary loss of the House in 1994 looks less and less temporary. The 2002 midterm elections saw the Republicans opening up a modest lead in House seats that they appear unlikely to surrender in the near future. The Senate is in Republican hands. The president will mount a vigorous and well-funded run for reelection.

Democratic mobilization efforts this time around have been noteworthy. Innovative pre-primary campaigning gave Governor Dean a healthy bank balance, a comfortable lead in the polls, and cohorts of newly mobilized supporters. The other viable candidates, Wesley Clark, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, and Kerry all struggled to make headway. Then the sober, winter voters of Iowa, turning out in impressive numbers, repudiated the ex-governor in favor of the two sitting senators, Kerry and Edwards. All told, the Democrats seemed set for a lengthy primary campaign among several viable candidates who would attract widespread attention from, and help mobilize, a growing number of Democratic voters.

The Democrats' practice of proportional voting in the primaries, in contrast to the Republicans' winner-take-all method, promised to underwrite such a campaign. In Democratic primaries voters select about half of the pledged delegates for their national convention on the basis of the candidates' proportional share of the popular vote in each state. At-large delegates and unpledged superdelegates (such as Members of Congress and governors) make up the remainder of the convention delegates. Under winner-take-all rules, one candidate with a run of narrow victories will quickly eclipse his rivals. But under proportional voting rules, securing delegates is a more difficult process. This encourages sustained campaigning and usually makes for a longer race.

From the horse race perspective, Kerry's victories last Tuesday were emphatic. But the delegate count tells a somewhat different story. Of the delegates to be won yesterday, Kerry's five victories and Edwards' and Clark's wins would, under winner-take-all rules, have yielded them 191, 45, and 40 delegates respectively. Under the proportional rules, however, Kerry actually secured 128, Edwards 61, and Clark 49—still an impressive performance on Kerry's part but one that will postpone his eventual nomination. Meanwhile, Edwards and even Clark are still in the race—at least for now.

Voter mobilization is fundamental to both the quality and the practical requirements of democracy. The Democrats' delegate-selection rules provide voters incentives to participate and they contribute to a longer and more meaningful campaign. Should Kerry win a majority of delegates by early March, the party will have to work very hard to sustain the current wave of enthusiasm for the Massachusetts senator. To judge by their recent performances, this is one year when a lengthy contest among several viable candidates might serve the Democrats better than an early victory.

—Timothy R. Sherratt, Political Studies
    Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”