The Democrats' Dilemma

No matter who wins the remaining primaries, there's no way for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton to capture enough delegates to reach the magic number of 2,025 needed to secure the Democratic nomination. The decision will then fall to the superdelegates, elected officials and party people often demonized in the media as hacks or backroom operators. A majority of them will swing behind one or the other candidate—likely Hillary Clinton—boosting her over the top even if she lags behind Barack Obama in the pledged delegate count.

And they will do this dastardly deed behind closed doors, in the electronic equivalent of the smoke-filled room, plotting over cell phones and making their decision based on implied favors and self-interest. This is the nightmare scenario. The good news for Democrats is that the excitement of two historic candidates generated hundreds of thousands of new voters; the bad news is half of them won't show up in November. But wait, things could get worse, or maybe better, depending on your perspective.

What happens if the superdelegates are just like the rest of the voters—i.e., they can't definitively decide between these two candidates? "What happens if they split the superdelegates?" asks an adviser to the Clinton campaign. The roughly 350 superdelegates who have not yet endorsed are all free agents. There's nothing that says they have to act in concert, and they'll work to avoid anything that fuels conspiracy theories. "My real worry is there is no back room," says this adviser. Clinton says she'll go all the way to the convention in August. If there's a stalemate, the superdelegates could decide to pass on the first ballot to test the candidates' strength at that juncture. We could then be way back to the future, the first time in the modern reform age that a candidate is not chosen on the first ballot.

If that happens, the convention could turn to a compromise candidate. Al Gore is the most obvious and perhaps the only contender who could head off a complete meltdown in the party. After all, he already won the popular vote for the presidency. It was only because of a fluke at the Supreme Court that he was denied his turn at the wheel. No one could deny that he's ready on day one to assume the presidency. "It's the rational choice if this turns into a goddamn mess, which it could," says the Clinton adviser, who doesn't want to be quoted seeming to waver about Clinton's chances of securing the nomination.

Gore has kept his silence throughout the Democratic nominating season. But his name will surely surface as his party ponders the possibility that they will not have a nominee by the time the convention rolls around—especially since John McCain enjoys a huge head start in launching his general-election campaign. We have the Ted Kennedy forces to thank for the freedom of choice that all delegates enjoy, not just the supers. In 1980, Kennedy argued for an open convention, while President Carter was determined to keep convention delegates bound. With a 600-delegate margin over Kennedy, Carter prevailed. As a result, any delegate voting against the candidate he or she was elected to represent could be replaced by an alternate and thrown off the convention floor. The rule was strict and enforceable. Kennedy couldn't dislodge any of the Carter delegates. Two years later, after Carter lost the election, the phrase "in all good conscience" was inserted into the rule, belatedly giving delegates the latitude Kennedy had sought.

What does that phrase mean? In the eyes of the Clintonites, it holds the promise of some room to maneuver en route to the nomination. By the time August rolls around, if public opinion polls show John McCain beating Obama by 15 points, then what does a delegate or a superdelegate "in all good conscience" do? This week's general-election matchups with John McCain have Obama up by 12 points and Clinton up by 6, but that could change with Clinton pounding away at Obama's inexperience on national security. She's shameless, telling a military audience this week that she and McCain bring a lifetime of experience to the job of commander in chief, while all Obama brings is a speech. An unbloodied Obama fares better against McCain, but where will he be after Clinton is through with him?

The two contested nominations of the modern era—Kennedy-Carter in '80 and Reagan-Ford in '76—offer clues as to what may lie ahead. In each case, the candidate with the most pledged delegates going into the convention won the nomination. Each then went on to lose the general election. Clinton backers point to the Reagan model. Governor Reagan stayed in the fight all the way to the convention. He had a hundred delegates fewer than Ford, roughly the same deficit Clinton has today. Reagan helped insure his party's defeat but nailed the nomination four years later.

With the lines hardening between the Clinton and Obama camps, neither is inclined to yield. "They both have such a strong claim on the nomination, it would be dumb for either one of them to give up," says the Clinton adviser, predicting that for the first time in the modern "reform" era, the Democrats may select a nominee on the second ballot. Who it will be is anybody's guess.