Predicting the 2004 primaries

Anthony Sanders

It’s the beginning of the summer the year before a leap year, so what do my thoughts naturally turn toward? The 2004 presidential elections, of course.

Now, I know this sounds sick to most of you, and it also does to me, but I really can’t help it. I’ve tried to kick the habit, and nothing has worked, so it’s on to presidential musing that I go. But hey, stick with me, because I’ve come up with an interesting prediction.

The unusual mix of contenders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination makes for an exciting scenario. What’s unusual about them is that just about all of them are rather usual. None of them stands out from the rest as a favorite, not even two or three. At least four have very strong hopes of grabbing the nomination.

Next, more than ever before, the nation’s primaries are on an accelerated schedule. It used to be that the presidential primary season was a state-by-state affair with the majority of delegates not chosen until well into the process. This allowed enough time for candidates to either run out of money or churn out enough name recognition and press coverage that one by one all but the winner would fall by the wayside. In addition, California and other big states were put off until near the end of the spring primaries, keeping large numbers of delegates unavailable as funds dwindled.

Now, after the traditional start in Iowa and New Hampshire, most other states, including California, will be over in a month or two. This doesn’t allow much time for candidates to run out of money and give up. Instead we have, in effect, a national primary.

This was somewhat the case in 2000, but we didn’t have a proper test of the new system. That was because there were only two big-ticket contenders in either party. In each case, one had a serious disadvantage in money and couldn’t last through “Super Tuesday.”

This time things really might be different. None of the four Democrats I alluded to above have a distinct advantage. Those are John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman. All except Gephardt are playing to the most moderate Democrats, all supported the war in Iraq (although a bit reluctantly, except for Lieberman) and all have none of the charm of past Democratic winners such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Also, each can claim a distinct slice of the old “Democratic Coalition.” Edwards is the only true Southerner, Gephardt is an old union hand, Kerry has strong support in the northeast (and somehow is often labeled the “frontrunner”) and Lieberman is Jewish (see New York and Florida) as well as being the only candidate who legitimately could be called a conservative Democrat.

And then there’s the rest of the pack, many of whom have a chance for hefty vote totals. Howard Dean was one of the only candidates courageous enough to oppose invading Iraq. This means many, many Democrats think very highly of him. Al Sharpton is not a “serious” candidate, but might grab a serious share of the black vote, as would former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun if she runs.

If all or most of these Democrats end up on the ballot in New Hampshire some strange stuff might happen that this country hasn’t seen since 1952. If three or more candidates still stand when the effective national primary is over, no one candidate may hold a majority of delegates. This means something very fun for cable news junkies: a broker convention.

National political conventions used to be the place where parties actually chose their presidential candidates, similar to the way parties often still choose statewide candidates in Minnesota. In the last 50 years the primary system has “democratized” the process, and year after year conventions have meant less and less.

If the primaries end with no clear holder of a majority of delegates the convention will resume center stage. The two or three candidates with the most delegates will try and court the also-rans so endorsements will follow and candidates will step down and pledge their support to someone else. However, this does not mean the delegates will necessarily follow their ex-candidate’s lead, and large numbers of undecided or shifting delegates might show up at the convention. Whatever comes out of that is anyone’s guess, but here’s one thing to chew on: The delegates don’t have to nominate someone who ran in the primaries. If they can’t agree on one of the candidates and another person steps forward, that person could be the nominee. And someone will have Hillary on speed dial.

Anthony Sanders’ biweekly column appears alternate Thursdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].

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