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Clinton and Obama, or Obama and Clinton: Will There Be a Hollywood Ending to This Dramatic Story?


Friday, Mar. 07, 2008

The ongoing, precedent-setting contest between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination may be the best political story of my lifetime, if not in the history of the country. This is pure, historic political drama.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama can write an ending that is going to satisfy all who are following this story. This story is, of course, much more than remarkable political theater, for its resolution will forever reverberate through the life of our country.

Robert McKee, a Ph.D. in cinema arts, is a story expert. McKee has made a career out of tutoring Hollywood about the essence of storytelling. (Yours truly attended his one of his weekend seminars many years ago.) I believe borrowing a few of McKee's analytical tools can assist in our better understanding this story, not to mention its likely endings.

If This Is a Five-Act Play, Here Are the First Three Acts

We all live from event to event, scene to scene, and act to act - and what makes it interesting is conflict, for in both life and stories, "conflict" always holds our attention. Like a moth to a candle, we are drawn to observing conflict. The Hillary-versus-Barack story is pure conflict, which will hold our attention until its resolution. If the story ends well, I believe then the longer it plays, the more it helps Democrats - for it dominates the news, pushing Republicans aside.

Act One opened with the announcements of not merely Obama and Clinton seeking the nomination, but also John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Mike Gravel. The first-act curtain went down when Clinton and Obama emerged as the favorites following the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Act Two ended with "Super Tuesday" on February 4, 2008, when twenty-two states held Democratic primaries or caucuses and Barack took the lead, winning fourteen states to Hillary's eight. The curtain lowered with Obama holding a slight lead in delegates over Clinton, and her survival depending on wins in key states like Ohio and Texas.

Act Three, which could have been the final act without Clinton wins, ended on March 5, 2008, with Hillary losing Vermont, but winning Rhode Island, Ohio, and Texas. As the curtain came down, Hillary was again competitive, although Barack has 135 more pledged delegates. Hillary, unlike Barack, has shown she can win big states (like New York, California, Ohio, and Texas), which are essential to winning the general election. On the other hand, polling indicates Barack will do much better than Hillary against Republican candidate John McCain - the most essential thing of all.

Act Four: The Primaries Will Fail To Pick the Nominee

Now, we enter Act Four. Most experts believe this race will only be resolved in August, at the Democratic Convention in Denver. Because of the proportional allocation of delegates, neither candidate will be able to lock up the nomination before the convention. In short, barring the unexpected, this contest for sufficient pledged delegates to win the nomination has been fought to a draw.

Privately, the Obama campaign has, in effect, conceded this fact. Bloomberg News received (by accident, for it was inadvertently attached to a press release) a memorandum prepared by the Obama campaign, dated February 2, 2008, which predicted that Obama would lose Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island but win Vermont on March 4, 2008. It concludes that Obama will then lose Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, but will win in Wyoming, Mississippi, and Indiana.

As reported on February 6 by Bloomberg, Obama advisers had also concluded (at least as of February 2) that at the end of the primaries, on June 7, 2008, "he will have 1,806 delegates to 1,789 for [Clinton]." This analysis excludes Florida and Michigan, but it appears to include their breakdown of superdelegates as of that date. (If the 366 delegates of Florida and Michigan come back into play, Obama would need to win some sixty percent to win the nomination, and that is not likely.) Thus, since neither candidate will have the majority of the 4049 delegates, or the 2025-pledged-delegates majority needed to win, it is - and will likely continue - to be a draw regarding pledged delegates.

Act Four, as it will play out on stage, will be the race for the remaining 611 pledged delegates, and if Florida and Michigan come back for viable contests, that will add another 366 delegates. Excluding Florida and Michigan, here are the dates and (delegates at stake): 3/8 - Wyoming (12), 3/11 - Mississippi (33), 4/22 - Pennsylvania (158), 5/3 - Guam (4), 5/6 - Indiana (72), 5/6 - North Carolina (115), 5/13 - West Virginia (28), 5/20 - Kentucky (51), 5/20 - Oregon (52), 6/3 - Montana (16), 6/3 - South Dakota (15), and 6/7 - Puerto Rico (55).

During Act Four, there will be a lot going on offstage, or behind the scenes, where both the Clinton and Obama camps have competing "war rooms," seeking to win the hearts and minds of superdelegates who have yet to commit - or might be pushed to reconsider their commitment. (Superdelegates, as many readers will be aware, are members of the DNC - local, state and national Party officials, including members of the House and Senate and state governors.) Both sides have involved the heaviest artillery they can muster in this effort: Former President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton are working the phones for Hillary and former Majority Leader of the Senate Tom Daschle is leading the way for Barack.

Actually, Act Four will probably seem much like the movie "Groundhog Day." For it is unlikely that any of these behind-the-scenes efforts will resolve the contest before the convention. Accordingly, the race will come down to uncommitted superdelegates at the convention.

Act Five: And The Winner Is... Do We Really Have To Decide?

There are a total of 796 superdelegates. While a few superdelegates are thrilled by the important role they will play, and a few more have already cast their fortune with one candidate or the other, most of the superdelegates are not happy that they may have to decide the fate of their party's nomination.

TPM Election Central broadly posed the question to DNC chair Howard Dean about the voting of superdelegates. Dean responded: "[A superdelegate's] role is to exercise their best judgment in the interests of the nation and of the Democratic Party." (Emphasis added.) In short, according to Dean, whatever criteria the delegate himself or herself feels appropriate, are the ones he or she should use.

Currently, as reported by CNN, Obama has some 199 superdelegates committed to him, and Clinton has 238 committed to her. For days, however, rumors have circulated online that Obama will soon announce that he has an additional 50 superdelegates, while other rumors claim the Clinton war room has brought a halt to such a move. Let's assume, however, the story is correct. This would mean that roughly 487 superdelegates are committed, yet still, neither side would be across the finish line. So it will come down to roughly 300 superdelegates to make the decision -- the Los Angeles Times places the exact number at 347.

To review the numbers: The total number of Democratic delegates is 4,049. If Obama advisers are correct, then Barack has 1806 (which could include any number of the 50 superdelegates who have not been announced yet as being for Obama) and Hillary has 1789. In total, that accounts for 3,595 superdelegates. Add in the some 26 delegates pledged to Edwards (which he can try to pass to either candidate) and the total accounted for is 3,621. So somewhere in the range of 300 to 400 - again, the exact number is 347, according to the LA Times -- uncommitted superdelegates control will resolve this story.

Time to Build a Deus Ex Machina Solution

Here are the serious downside problems with the superdelegates making their decision. They stand to alienate either Clinton or Obama supporters who are going to be deeply disappointed -- many, even bitter, if their candidate does not win the presidential nomination. Moreover, if one candidate (very likely, Obama) wins the pledged delegates but not the nomination, the anger is likely to be especially great, in particular as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and others, have voiced the opinion - contrary to the position of DNC chairman Dean - that it is the will of the voters, not party officials, that ought to govern.

In traveling the country and talking to both Hillary's and Barack's supporters -- several hundred people, over the past few months -- I am reminded of two prior campaigns. Not unlike Barry Goldwater's supporters in 1964 and George McGovern's supporters in 1972, many of Clinton and Obama's most devoted followers are more interested in making a point than winning an election. Gender and race are big issues in this contest, and the Democratic Party dare not turn off, or embitter, either group and still hope to win in November.

Unlike the Goldwater and McGovern races (which each candidate lost badly), there is a unique factor in this race. Many of Clinton and Obama's supporters were torn in making their choice, and did not become invested in their decision until they actually made it. So, simultaneously, there exists extremely broad support throughout the party for both candidates, and a heartfelt desire by countless rank-and-file Democrats to have neither candidate lose. There may be poll numbers I have not found, but I believe a solid majority of Democrats would be thrilled with either an Obama/Clinton or Clinton/Obama ticket. Although not being atop the ticket would disappoint either candidate and his or her supporters, those activist Democrats with whom I have spoken would be delighted with this consolation arrangement.

To date, neither candidate has rejected this notion out of hand; rather, each says it is premature, for each understandably wants the top spot. Clearly, such a "dream ticket" would prevent alienation within the party - as well as presenting the Republicans with their greatest possible nightmare scenario.

When Aristotle first analyzed the elements of a good story, he found that the ending must be both "inevitable and unexpected." There are some very savvy politicians among the uncommitted superdelegates, who if they act well before the convention, can construct nothing less than a modern deus ex machina that could guarantee the dream ticket that Democrats crave and Republicans fear. If I explain what these political pros surely know about how to do this, I will risk ruining the end of this great story, which must be inevitable and unexpected. This I must say, however: Now is the time for all uncommitted superdelegates to go to the aid of your party.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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