The withdrawal of John Edwards from the Democratic presidential race doesn't eliminate the possibility of high political drama unfolding at the party's national convention this summer in Denver. His departure leaves Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, two powerful party figures, to compete for delegates. The last time a primary contest whittled down to two Democratic titans was in 1980, when Sen. Edward Kennedy and then-President Jimmy Carter dueled through a nine-month primary season -- which left the question of who would be the nominee in doubt until August.
If Clinton and Obama split the vote on Super Tuesday, and in the following contests, then it's possible the convention, like in 1980, could be decided on a procedural vote.
Kennedy came into the Democratic convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City with 1,225 delegates to Carter's 1,981 and 122 uncommitted. Kennedy's only chance to wrest the nomination from Carter, who had enough delegates to win, was to pass an "open rule" motion.
Joe Trippi was on the convention floor the evening of Aug. 11, 1980, marshalling the Kennedy delegations from Texas and Utah. He remembers the deciding vote as "the robot rule vote," which came after an hour-long debate that played out in front of a prime time television audience. The debate was over whether delegates should have to vote for the candidate they'd been pledged for, or have an "open" vote during which they could pick Kennedy or Carter, Trippi recalled in an interview. The back story being that the economic and international political situation had deteriorated between the time most people voted and the time of the convention, opening the door to Kennedy, who was billed as a change candidate. "It went all the way down to the wire," said Trippi, who was an adviser to Edwards' 2008 campaign.
This year, Edwards was winning 14 percent to 18 percent of the vote in the early nominating contests before he withdrew on Jan. 30. "At this point, no one's got 50 percent of the delegates in those early states," Trippi said. "It's unlikely on Feb. 5 anyone's going to get 50 percent of the delegates." Feb. 5, or Super Tuesday, is when 22 states hold primaries or caucuses and close to 50 percent of the Democratic delegates are up for grabs. If Clinton and Obama split the vote on Super Tuesday, and in the following contests, then it's possible the convention, like in 1980, could be decided on a procedural vote.
The Florida and Michigan delegations are currently counted at zero each after being stripped of their delegates by the DNC when they leap-frogged into the early voting calendar. Normally, the two states combined would boast more than 350 delegates. Clinton has made it clear she wants the Michigan and Florida delegations seated at the convention. She won Florida and, speaking at a rally there on Jan. 29, told supporters, "I promise you I will do everything I can that not only Florida's Democrats get seated but that Florida is in the winning column for the Democrats in November 2008."
That could be a problem, said Eric Lawrence, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies primary elections. "Imagine the politicking if neither Clinton nor Obama has a majority of delegates and the Florida Democrats agitate noisily about the stripping of their delegates and their lack of representation at the convention," he said. "Imagine the confusion if the Florida and Michigan delegates are enough to pick a winner."
The DNC contends that's an unlikely scenario, because the number needed to win the nomination -- 2,025 delegates -- doesn't include either Michigan or Florida. Still, if Obama won 2,025 delegates and Clinton was within a margin of a few hundred, it seems unlikely that she'd be willing to let the nomination slide. In Michigan, for instance, she was the only candidate who didn't request her name be removed from the primary ballot, which effectively handed her a victory in that ostensibly meaningless contest.
As it stands now, Michigan Democrats are already making plans to be in Denver, and the DNC maintains the issue will go to its convention credentials committee. Still, Lawrence said, "I don't know what they'll do in the Florida case."
Just because Edwards is out of the race doesn't mean he's irrelevant, Lawrence added. Edwards retains his 62 delegates, which he collected in the first round of caucuses and primaries and from endorsements. "He's still going to be instrumental with the overall Democratic Party because he's got some delegates and he has some support among Democratic voters, and Obama and Clinton are not going to want to ignore those voters," he said. Edwards didn't endorse either candidate during his concession speech in New Orleans on Wednesday afternoon.
In 1980, after the convention floor debate, Kennedy picked up support from most of the uncommitted delegates, bringing his vote total to 1,390 -- still shy of the majority needed to pass the motion. Carter won the rule vote and Kennedy quickly conceded. Another 300 delegates would have been enough for Kennedy to pass the motion and throw that convention "wide open," Trippi said.
Something else to consider is the role of the super-delegates, said Daniel Shea, a professor of political science at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, who's organizing a conference on party nomination reform set for Feb. 13.
There are 795 super-delegates to the Democratic National Convention, Shea said. "They're the key to this whole process." Super-delegates include governors, members of a state's congressional delegation and former officeholders. "Super-delegates tend to be more the establishment wing of the party -- not exactly the Obama group," he said. "They're a crucial piece of the brokered convention. DNC rules stipulate they don't have to vote for the candidate, even the one they've endorsed."
Whether it's down to super-delegates or pledged delegates, if it's a close contest going into the convention, the campaigns are going to have to run organized delegate operations, said Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who counted delegates for Carter at the '80 convention. "The process really only begins in Iowa and New Hampshire. The living delegates -- the actual human beings -- we don't know who they are until June."
The candidates "are going to have to close the deal on literally hundreds of delegates," he said. "To do that, it's a tremendous time commitment; that operation requires staffing, resources, and political talent. If you put that together in the right way in a close election, they're going to be your soldiers," he said.