Stephen Schlesinger: Obama and The Myth of Pledged Delegates





[Stephen Schlesinger is the former Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York City (1997-2006). Mr. Schlesinger received his BA from Harvard University and his JD from Harvard Law School.]

There is no rule in the politics of Democratic Party conventions that says that the contender with the largest number of pledged delegates short of the total required for nomination should automatically, by dint of that achievement, be handed the party's designation. This argument is now being put forth by Senator Obama's campaign.

Such a contention is belied by the modern-day history of Democratic conventions. In 1912, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, Champ Clark, went to the Baltimore convention with the largest number of delegates, around 440, Woodrow Wilson was second with 324, trailed by a few others -- with two thirds of the convention vote required for nomination. Champ Clark was not then allowed to proclaim himself victorious simply because he led the pack. Rather the proceedings went through almost 50 ballots over a week's period that, after much maneuvering, resulted in Wilson accumulating enough delegates to secure the nomination.

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt arrived at the Democratic Convention this time with the most delegates -- having won them through some primaries and some Democratic state organizations -- but still short of the requisite two-thirds majority. Despite this lead, the party did not hand him the nomination. He had to proceed through four ballots to achieve it.

Finally in the 1952 Democratic race, Senator Estes Kefauver went through the primary process, beat President Truman in New Hampshire, won Wisconsin, Nebraska, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland and entered the Chicago convention with a lead of 257 votes, with four other contenders trailing behind, including Adlai Stevenson. On the first actual ballot, Kefauver held the lead but by now Stevenson had crept up to second place. Then ultimately Stevenson grabbed the designation from Kefauver on the third ballot -- all of this, despite his failure to contest a single primary, with no accumulated Democratic votes compared to those of Kefauver's, and in spite of his late entry into the race. But the party thought he would be the better nominee.

Now today some in the Obama campaign and in the media are dismissing the importance of Hillary Clinton's victories in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island as unimportant. For they argue that, by any careful analysis of the delegate selection process under the present Democratic Party proportional representation system, whatever delegate totals Senator Clinton wins through the end of this year's primary season, will not be able to overcome Senator Obama's current unsurpassable lead over Senator Clinton and therefore Obama will deserve the support of the so-called "super delegates" and should gain the nomination. But that is not how it works as we have seen in past Democratic conventions. A lead in pledged delegates is not enough. You still have to convince your party that you are the best nominee. That is what the next stage of this election is all about.


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R.R. Hamilton - 3/10/2008

I don't have much to add beyond my praise for true historianship, except this:

As I have told my kids (Obama supporters), the purpose of primaries and caucuses is to choose delegates. The purpose of a convention is to choose a nominee. If -- as it appears likely -- no one goes to the Democratic convention with a majority of delegates, then the proper role of the convention is to decide a nominee, be it Hillary, Barack, or some other person.

I say this as a former Democrat, now a registered Independent.


Robert Carlson - 3/8/2008

You explained the past. Maybe it won't repeat itself...maybe there is a different subjective sense now then in the past. Societies do evolve you know.

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