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Fixing the presidential primaries

The Baltimore Sun

The 2008 primaries have quickly shaped up as the most interesting in recent memory. Both parties' races are so tight and in flux that there is a chance in each party that no candidate will have captured enough votes to secure the nomination before the convention rolls around.

This may be a far greater danger for the Democrats, because of a rule enacted by previous party leaders aimed at maintaining control over their presidential choice. In 2008, the result may be a Democratic convention choosing a nominee who lacks the legitimacy of being the "people's choice."

Such an outcome could prove disastrous.

After the 1980 election, Democratic Party leaders allocated for themselves a heaping portion of the delegates by creating "superdelegates." (The Republicans have "unpledged delegates," which are similar but less powerful.) Every Democratic member of Congress, every Democratic governor and all of the elected members of the Democratic National Committee were granted a vote at the convention. In 2008, this group will make up approximately 20 percent of the convention.

Back then, the leaders expected that the superdelegates could play a significant, if not necessarily a decisive, role in the selection process. However, it did not work out that way. Every nominee since these reforms were put in place has been decided based on the primary and caucus vote.

This year might be different. Because no front runner is emerging, and with the compressed timeframe of the election, it's possible that no candidate will end up claiming a majority by the convention. In that case, the superdelegates, the majority of whom currently support Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (but could switch sides at any time), could very well be the decision-makers. This could end up being a real problem for the Democratic Party.

In general, the last place the public would want the nominee selected is on the convention floor, where the possibility of vote-buying could fatally weaken the candidate in the public's eyes. The existence of superdelegates compounds the problem.

Most of the superdelegates were never elected by the general populace. If they end up making the difference in the nomination, especially if the winner came into the convention in second place, there is a strong possibility of disenchanting a good portion of the party's base.

There is little that can realistically be done to rectify this problem for 2008. But the perceived illegitimacy of being handed the nomination by party insiders could poison the candidate's chances of winning the general election.

The Democratic Party should be forewarned - an attempt to control the nomination in the past could very well come back to haunt it in 2008.

Joshua Spivak is a public relations executive and a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College. A longer version of this article ran in the Los Angeles Times.

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