The titanic battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination will be remembered for a long, long time. For political junkies and political scientists like me, it provides a great “teachable moment” for how rules actually matter in presidential politics–that it’s not all about spin, buzz, money and momentum.
Jeff Berman, who became an electoral celebrity among political junkies for his role as Obama’s delegate guru in 2008–he was hailed as the “mastermind” and “unsung hero” of Obama’s delegate strategy–is also a member of the Democratic Change Commission formed early last year and tasked with proposing changes to the Democratic primary process. A Harvard-trained lawyer for Bryan Cave law firm, Berman was a longtime adviser to former congressman and Democratic presidential contender Dick Gephardt. He also supervised the development of the Democratic Party’s 2008 national platform.
As a follow-up to Monday’s post about the DCC’s proposed changes, Berman was kind enough to join 538 by telephone from his Washington office to talk about the proposed party rule changes and the objectives of Commission that wrote them. I think a key point missed in much of the preliminary reporting about the proposals, most of which focused on removing the voting independence of superdelegates’, is the fact that the DCC really wants to steer the states toward grouping into regional or sub-regional primaries, like the one conducted jointly by Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC, in 2008.
fivethirtyeight: So the Commission was charged with considering three issues: the primary and caucus calendar; the role and number of superdelegates; and “improving the caucus system.” How would you say the Commission met each of those challenges?
Jeff Berman: The Commission discussed each one of these issues during their meetings and produced recommendations for each area.
The first issue is the timing of the primaries and caucuses, and the Commission is sending two major recommendations to the DNC. The first major timing recommendation is to move the start of the window back so that the pre-window contests of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are held during the month of February, and that the window for other state contests begins in early March. That would be pushing these timeframes back one month from their placement in the 2008 cycle, when the contests began in very early January and there was a lot of uncertainty even about whether they might be held in December of 2007.
The second major timing recommendation of the Commission is for the states to organize their dates around regional or sub-regional groupings, to address frontloading that occurs within the window. This would include the DNC Rules Committee looking at offering “bonus delegate allocations” for states that schedule their contest in these groupings. The idea here is to try to make the calendar more rational by having states cluster together on a voting day so that the candidates can campaign efficiently in contiguous states, as opposed to situations which we’ve seen in prior cycles where candidates had to campaign for contests held on the same day on both the East Coast and the West Coast. It’s just more efficient for candidates to conduct bus tours and other retail campaigning and to purchase advertising in overlapping media markets when multiple contests are held in contiguous states.
The next area covered by the Commission is the unpledged delegates, also known as the superdelegates. The Commission is taking a measured approach to change the rules in this area. The recommendation is to retain all the current superdelegate categories, except the add-on unpledged delegates, and enable the persons in these categories to attend the National Convention as pledged national party leader and elected official delegates, known as NPLEOs who would be pledged in accordance with the statewide primary or caucus results. In the event that an individual eligible to be an NPLEO did not want to pledge, they could serve as a non-voting delegate to the National Convention, with the same credentials and hotel accommodations, and participate in all matters with their state delegation, except for the votes on the floor. This non-voting option would not be available to any other potential delegate to the National Convention and reflects the desire of the Commission to ensure that all of our senior elected officials and Party members attend the National Convention as part of their state delegation.
The last area for Commission review was the operation of the caucus systems. The Commission discussed the uneven performance of caucus operations in some states and how to assist these states in improvements to their caucuses. There are numerous states that run very professional caucuses systems, but there are other states in each cycle that face special challenges in running their caucuses. For instance, it might be the first time the state is conducting caucuses because the legislature de-funded the primary, or it may be there has been turnover in management personnel at the state party and the new people do not have deep experience in overseeing a caucus system. Whatever the reasons, there needs to be a more thorough effort on behalf of the national party to make sure the state party has adequately prepared for the caucus system, and the Commission is recommending that the DNC Rules Committee undertake more detailed oversight in this area.
538: You mentioned something called a “bonus delegate allocation.” Is that something that is a carrot to induce states to participate in a regional primary but without a requirement to do so? And would those states actually have more delegate votes at the National Convention?
Berman: Yes, the Commission is proposing a bonus delegate system to encourage states to cluster their primaries and caucuses by region or sub-region. The DNC has experimented with bonus delegate systems in the past, offering a larger number of delegates to states that move to the back end of the calendar window. In fact, a larger bonus was offered, the farther back in the calendar a state scheduled its contest.
Unfortunately, few states accepted these bonuses as sufficient incentive to move to the back of the window, perhaps in part because there was no other rationale to scheduling a contest late in the Calendar. With a regional approach, states will have a good reason to cluster on a date other than the opening day of the window, and bonus delegates will reinforce such a decision. The Commission noted the success of the Potomac primary in 2008, when Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC voted on the same day and drew strong presidential candidate attention.
The Commission believes that the awarding of bonus delegates to the states can reinforce the advantages of regional clustering and thus have a better chance of reducing the heavy congestion of Super Tuesday contests than was achieved with earlier bonus systems.
538: I want to talk about Michigan and Florida. There were already rules in place in 2008 when Michigan and Florida rebelled, causing headaches for the party and, as it turned out, Hillary Clinton. What was done—what can be done, really—to prevent that from happening with some other state in 2012?
Berman: A number of states will be looking at new dates in 2012 if these recommendations are adopted and the start of the primaries and caucuses is pushed back in the next presidential election cycle.
And so there will be a need for movement to a later date on the part of many states, some with Democratic state control, some with Republican state control and some which are mixed. There may be a possibility that Republican rules will call for a later start to the 2012 primary calendar also.
No state will singled out for different treatment in the seating of their delegates and all will be encouraged to find the right date for their contest within the rules. Michigan and Florida Democrats will need to consider the totality of the new options available to them, including a regional primary approach and the possibility of receiving more – not fewer – delegate votes at the National Convention.
538: Did the Commission discuss the possibility of removing New Hampshire and Iowa from their traditional positions at the front of the queue?
Berman: No. The Commission was not tasked by the National Convention to address changes to the identity of the states that are approved to hold contests in the pre-Window period.
538: OK, let’s turn to the superdelegates. The proposal is for the new class of NPLEO delegates to vote in accordance with their statewide primary or caucus results. This means there will be no superdelegates—not a single person who has a vote ex officio that can be exercised independently-right?
Berman: Yes, that’s the recommendation. The recommendation is to convert the existing unpledged delegates, known as superdelegates, to pledged delegates.
538: Did you get the sense that some of the members of the Commission whom are superdelegates, or have been at some point in their career, did not favor this proposal?
Berman: The Commission vote to adopt these recommendations was unanimous. The overwhelming view was that reforms needed to be made to ensure that the preferences of the voters was not overridden by unelected delegates, while at the same time the Party benefits from having its most senior members in the Convention hall in the event of a challenging nomination decision.
The recommendations attempt to meet these twin objectives.
538: In terms of the number of total delegates and superdelegates—which is roughly 4,000 and 800, respectively—is there going to be any change in those totals or will it be about the same?
Berman: There could be a change in these totals, particularly depending on the structure and use of the bonus delegate system, which will be addressed by the Rules committee.
538: So these totals could go upward?
Berman: Yes, they could increase.
538: Because of the bonus situation, then, the allocation proportionally across states could also change. It changes normally because of presidential outcomes. I’m talking above and beyond that—that weighting for each state could be different from what it was in 2008. That’s also possible, right?
Berman: Yes, states that qualify for a bonus allocation of delegates under the rules adopted for 2012 would have a relatively larger delegation size than states that do not qualify.
This was the same under bonus delegate systems that were used in the past.
538: In terms of the caucuses relative to the primaries, one of the complaints I suppose some people made—or something many observers gave you credit for—is that Obama got more delegates per voter than Hillary Clinton because of his attention to the caucus system. Is there anything that is going to change the imbalance—whether one views that as fairly or not—between the amount of support a candidate needs in order to win a delegate in a caucus state relative to a primary state?
Berman: No, the DNC uses standard formulas to allocate delegates to each state based on population and Democratic voting strength.
Each state is permitted to choose either a primary or a caucus to select its delegates and that decision does not affect the state’s allocation to the National Convention. Of course, a candidate needs less support to win a delegate in a state which has a lower turnout, whether of primary voters or caucus attendees, than in a state with a higher turnout. While primaries generally do have higher turnout than caucuses, we saw substantial increases in caucus turnout in 2008 and could see additional increases in a future competitive cycle.
538: Two quick questions as exit questions. It goes to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee and then theoretically to the DNC in full. Do you anticipate any of the proposals being changed or even rejected at this point?
Berman: It’s not theoretical that it will go to the full DNC. The Rules and Bylaws Committee will draft the rules for the next national nominating process and those rules must be adopted by the full DNC to become effective. A full discussion of the recommendations will be held at the Rules and Bylaws Committee and there will be a diversity of opinions on various issues.
The need for new language to implement recommendations will provide an opportunity to refine concepts and accommodate a diversity of opinions on different subjects.
538: Last question—and I’m not sure if you even have a sense or if it’s even appropriate to speculate—but do you think the new rules will favor a certain type of candidate? Does it favor a candidate who surges early like in the old Iowa and New Hampshire model, or a candidate who is strong regionally, or a candidate with wide but not deep support across the whole country? Rules do matter and I’m wondering if the new rules favor or disfavor a particular type of candidate.
Berman: It is too soon to say exactly how the new rules will affect candidates in 2012 or 2016.
The calendar still will begin with the familiar approved pre-Window contests that typically winnow the field. This means candidates will need to be able to run a strong, well-financed campaign in the year prior to the primaries and be successful at retail campaigning and intensive organization in the early states in order to make it through the opening stage of the process.
After that, the lineup of the states within the Window likely will be much different than what we saw for 2012, and there is no telling what type of candidate they might favor.
The 2008 campaign, however, showed us that the candidate who best understands the rules and calendar and strategically prepares to maximize his or her delegate performance will have a leg up on the competition once the process unfolds.