How to Win in a Knife Fight

April 06, 2008
After the last Democratic Primary is held in early June, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama will have enough votes from delegates elected in caucuses or primaries to be declared the nominee. Obama would have to win 76 percent and Clinton 98 percent of the 535 delegates that are at stake in the final eight contests. Neither will happen.

Both sides are frantically wooing the 330 uncommitted superdelegates, who will decide the race. Obama supporters emphasize that he's ahead in the popular vote and argue that superdelegates should respect the wishes of the primary voters (except in the states he lost, of course). They suggest Obama would do better with independents and Republicans in the fall; they argue Hillary Clinton is a flawed, secretive candidate who was wrong on Iraq and dissembles about her experience. Clinton partisans point to her victories in big battleground states and say superdelegates should act in the best interests of the party. They paint Barack Obama as an inexperienced, untested, overly ambitious candidate with a thin résumé who will fall to the Republican attack machine.

It's highly unlikely that these undecided superdelegates will tilt one way or the other before June, unless one candidate reels off a string of strong, unexpected victories. There has been talk of a "superdelegate primary" that month, whereby they'd be forced to make a decision and bring the increasingly vitriolic race to a close. But the Clinton camp in particular is talking about the "months" to come until a decision is reached, and it's even possible the Democratic nominee won't be decided until the Denver convention in late August.

It's been a while since the last contested convention. So, drawing on the 180-year history of presidential nominating conventions, let me suggest a few rules for winning in Denver.

Rule #1: Control the Convention Mechanism. If you set the rules, decide who votes, organize the event and control what is said, it's almost impossible to lose. So while Democratic National Committee chief Howard Dean is ostensibly in charge, both candidates would be well advised to gain control of the levers of the convention.

Three committees are key. The Rules Committee is where trouble can begin. Someone will come up with a smooth-sounding rules change that will give one candidate the advantage or the appearance of having a majority of the delegates. There will be an early test vote: the key is to pick what it is and win it. It's likely to be obscure—the election of a temporary chairman, say—or contrived. But it will establish who's in charge.

The Credentials Committee inevitably becomes the arena where the nominee is settled. This time, the issue will be Michigan and Florida. Democratic Party rules say they can't be seated at the convention because their primaries were held too early. If Democrats don't find a way to seat Michigan and Florida that's acceptable to both Clinton and Obama, the Credentials Committee will become a war zone and the states' 44 electoral votes put at risk. And don't forget the Arrangements Committee. Being able to decide what delegation sits where, who stays in which hotel, and who's able to get a pass to the gallery can help set the mood and tone of the delegates. Put your best delegations where they can hoot and holler for the cameras. Friends? Nice hotel near the convention center. Unfriendly delegation? How about that comfy Motel 6 near the airport?

Be wary of overkill, though. Remember, the losers and their supporters are looking to play the victim. In 1912 the heavy-handed rule of the Taft forces gave the loser the excuse he needed to walk out with his delegates to lead a third-party bid. And while Theodore Roosevelt didn't win, he doomed Taft's re-election.

Rule #2: Watch the Platform. Party platforms were once the most important statement of the presidential campaign. No more. But they can still get you in trouble with your own party, or with the public. Put your best policy nerds on this—but make certain they have some charming pols and crafty negotiators along as well. You'll need to make compromises—sometimes to smooth hurt feelings, as Carter did in the negotiations with the Kennedy forces in 1980, feeling certain changes wouldn't make a real difference but would help heal deep wounds. Other times, nominees agree to make platform changes because they've sewn up the nomination but can't prevail in this particular fight. This was the case for President Ford in the 1976 GOP battles over the foreign-policy plank.

And sometimes a platform battle is useful for a candidate and his party. At the 1948 Democratic convention, for example, Southern Dixiecrats were already angry with Harry Truman, who was on his way to winning the nomination. Then the young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, staged a floor fight to pass a plank on civil rights rejected by the Platform Committee. By winning this battle, Humphrey gave the Dixiecrats the excuse they were looking for to bolt the party and nominate Strom Thurmond. But it also gave Truman an issue that allowed him to win Northern blacks and moderates who might otherwise have voted for Dewey. The platform fight changed and modernized the Democratic Party while retaining the loyalty of the Solid South for another 16 years.

Rule #3: It's All About Delegates. Delegates are political junkies. This is their moment in the spotlight. Don't take them for granted. Make every effort to attend to their every legitimate (and legal) need. By now your campaign should have a massive set of binders with information on every delegate—their birthday, pet peeves, hobbies and interests. If not, get them started.

Have whips for state delegations and deputy whips for groups within each delegation. Have them live, eat, drink and socialize with their charges. And have a fast, nimble system in place to report any concerns, because in a close contest, small groups of delegates matter. In the 1952 GOP contest, Eisenhower received critical support from the 19 delegates pledged to Minnesota's Harold Stassen, then in his second of ultimately nine presidential bids. The 26 delegates committed to John Edwards may be critical to this year's outcome.

Also, make certain your convention team can communicate instantly and make rapid decisions. At the 1976 GOP convention, the Ford teams covering the floor felt tremors from the Mississippi delegates, who were dissatisfied over Reagan's VP choice. Ford's people persuaded Mississippi to drop its winner-takes-all rule, giving Ford a healthy minority of the state's votes and a big dollop of momentum.

Rule #4: Have a Strategy to Win. Whatever combination of endorsements, announcements, policy statements and stagecraft you can engineer to create a sense of momentum going into the convention, do it. Nelson Polsby, one of the great scholars of conventions, wrote that delegates "behave in a way that will maximize their political power … Delegates will trade their votes for access to the candidate they think most likely to win nomination." So create the appearance of a bandwagon for your candidate and invite uncommitted superdelegates to climb aboard.

But don't do things that make it more difficult for your candidate. Behind and looking for a way to shake things up in 1976, Ronald Reagan took a gamble and named his running mate a few weeks before the convention. Sen. Richard Schweicker, a Pennsylvania moderate, did give Reagan a few more votes in the Keystone State delegation. But his selection unsettled conservative delegates (hence his Mississippi setback).

In addition, save some surprises—and hold back some votes. You want to have positive news each day of the convention, especially the day of the vote. In 1940, Sam Pryor, a master operator and supporter of Wendell Willkie, carefully salted away supporters in the camps of other candidates, including his principal opponents. Then he carefully moved just enough of them into the Willkie column so he rose on each ballot while his competitors fell. It helped that the delegates were hidden in states well down the roll call like Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York. And it especially helped Willkie that he appeared to pull votes from his principal competitors. Since this year's convention is likely to take only one ballot, keep some superdelegates ready to pop out just before and during the convention.

Rule #5: Focus on Staging. Conventions are elaborate made-for-TV productions. We live in a culture of the visual. Every moment and every event should be scripted. The media will complain about it, but think through what messages you want and when you want them. This script must be visually powerful and interesting enough to keep the cameras on your candidate and not somewhere else. Make the spectacle personal. The Al and Tipper Gore kiss, for instance, did him a lot of good. And be sure to provide fresh content all the time. In the era of cable TV, talk radio, the blogosphere and YouTube, someone is watching and talking all the time. If you're not pressing content into all available channels, someone else will.

National political conventions are equal parts carnival, prime-time soap opera, policy lecture and weeklong party. They are easy to caricature and increasingly anachronistic. But they have been an important element of the liturgy of democracy. And while in recent decades conventions have become antiseptic, predictable and largely ignored by the national press, this year, for the Democrats, could be different.

Of course, after June, one candidate could blink and step aside. But if only a few delegates separate the two candidates and there are enough uncommitted superdelegates and Michigan and Florida are not resolved, well, to the dismay of Democrats, Denver could be the scene of real drama, horse trading and arm-twisting. For political junkies, conventions are always worth watching. It could be doubly so this year.

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