Why not let Clinton keep the four Michigan delegates?

Hillary Clinton's supporters are arguing vehemently against one part of the deal reached to seat the state's delegation.


Alex Koppelman
June 2, 2008 9:09PM (UTC)

Under the deal reached by the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee, Hillary Clinton will receive 69 pledged delegates from Michigan, and Barack Obama will get 59; each delegate will have half a vote. The Clinton camp has been arguing strenuously against this allocation, even saying that Obama should haven't gotten any delegates because his name wasn't on the ballot for Michigan's Democratic primary. But perhaps its most persuasive argument is that, based on the percentage of the vote she won in the state, Clinton actually earned 73 delegates, and that four delegates were arbitrarily taken away from her and given to Obama.

"They hijacked -- you know, they just plain reached in and grabbed four delegates from Hillary," senior Clinton advisor Harold Ickes, a member of the RBC, said to CNN on Sunday. "It's unheard of and unprecedented in this party. To take delegates from a candidate and give them to another candidate is quite incredible ... [Obama] says, 'Oh, my goodness. I want these delegates. Not only do I want the 55 uncommitted delegates, but, by the way, I'd like to take four of Hillary's.' Well, why -- you know, why did he stop at four? Why didn't he just ask for the whole bunch of them?"

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Clinton supporters on the blogosphere have expressed similar outrage. Taylor Marsh, for instance, wrote:

For 4 lousy delegates? How small are you people? Could you not understand what was swirling enough to allow Clinton her due in Michigan? Four lousy delegates?

You have no idea what you've done. The fury you have unleashed. Your arrogance is topped only by your ignorance and the sheer stupidity of this "compromise," which sends a message that you just don't get it. Oh, and by the way, you've also likely just thrown the 2008 election ...

You have simply given Hillary's supporters the reason they were craving. Outraged already, many of Hillary's supporters were waiting for a reason to raise a ruckus, and you just gave them one. A righteous one. They were already screaming for Clinton to go to Denver. Now the decibel level is ear shattering.

I think it's hard to argue that taking away the four delegates really was undemocratic. The primary itself was undemocratic -- there's no way to tell for sure that Clinton would have actually won 73 delegates if the contest had been sanctioned and Obama's name had been on the ballot. But set aside for a moment the question of whether the RBC's decision was right or not. From a purely strategic perspective, especially when you witness the furor from Clinton supporters -- and Marsh's statement is undoubtedly over the top, but she is right that there's a lot of anger over the decision -- the choice not to just give Clinton all 73 delegates is a little puzzling.

The Obama camp didn't have to let Clinton get as many delegates from Michigan as she ended up with. It had the votes in the RBC to force a straight split of Michigan's pledged delegates between the two candidates. But they chose instead to accept the compromise position and hand Clinton an extra five delegates. So why not just throw in the additional four?

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A colleague and I were discussing this on Sunday, and we thought at the time it might have been a mistake on the Obama camp's part. Giving Clinton the four delegates would have meant an eight-delegate swing from Obama to Clinton, it's true, but at this point that means little. His pledged delegate lead is formidable. Besides, each delegate from Michigan has only a partial vote anyway. For that relatively small price, the Obama campaign would have been able to deprive Clinton supporters of what is probably their strongest argument against the RBC's vote.

But Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com has an explanation that, while apparently based in speculation, seems pretty persuasive to me. He writes:

If you [gave Clinton the four delegates], you'd be reflecting the Clinton/uncommitted preference from the unsanctioned primary. Which means that you'd be tending to legitimate the results of that primary. Which means that Clinton would have had a stronger claim for including Michigan in her popular vote count.

If you include Michigan in the popular vote count, as Clinton's campaign does, then she leads by most estimates and has a suddenly somewhat more persuasive argument to make to voters and superdelegates. (If you give Obama the votes cast for "Uncommitted" and count estimates of certain caucuses, then he's ahead, but that's a whole other issue.) Ensuring that the Michigan delegate allocation did not reflect the actual vote totals was a good way for Obama supporters -- and the DNC -- to symbolize that Michigan should not be included when tallying the national popular vote. And indeed, the word from the DNC does appear to be that Florida should be included and Michigan excluded.

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Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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