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Campaign 2000: A User's Guide

Quirky Rules Shape Choice of Convention Delegates

Democracy infiltrated the process in 20th century. By contrast, Thomas Jefferson called 1787 gathering 'an assembly of demigods.'


When politicians talk about the "beauty contest" Tuesday in California that pits Republicans George W. Bush against John McCain, they're not talking hairlines.

They're describing the strange "blanket" primary, in which registered Democrats and independents can cross party lines to vote for Arizona Sen. McCain, Texas Gov. Bush or former ambassador Alan Keyes. But those votes won't count toward delegate selection. That's because the parties bitterly fought the 1996 citizens' initiative that permits crossover voting and, when it passed anyway, persuaded the Legislature to alter the rules. So although all candidates will be on all ballots and all ballots will be tabulated, only registered party members' votes will count in choosing their nominees.

That's just one reminder of the convoluted reality of Tuesday's primaries. Residents in California and 15 other states may think they're voting for a presidential nominee, but they're actually voting for delegates to national party conventions.

The system is better than it used to be, experts say, with the balance of power shifting gradually to the ordinary voter. But that could change in the wake of McCain's strong challenge this year to party favorite Bush.

"In the past, all the delegates were selected in back rooms by party elites," said James Gimpel, associate professor of government at the University of Maryland. "Now, with the primary system . . . theoretically, at least, it's taken out of the elites' hands and placed in the hands of voters."

Delegates are as old as the Republic. Thomas Jefferson called the 55 delegates at the nation's first convention in 1787 "an assembly of demigods." They were all white males, mostly farmers, lawyers, educators, merchants and war veterans.

More than 200 years later, the delegates more closely reflect society as a whole. In fact, the Democrats require half of all delegates to be women--reforms that began after the tumultuous 1968 convention, in which Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey won the nomination without running in a single primary.

To be the Democratic nominee this year, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley or Vice President Al Gore must win 2,169 delegates by August's convention in Los Angeles. To win the Republican nomination, McCain or Bush must garner 1,034 delegates by the convention, which begins July 31 in Philadelphia.

In fact, the decisions almost certainly will be made at the latest by March 14, when 70% of all delegates will have been picked.

Each political party has delegate rules, and each state has its own quirky system of closed, open or semi-open primaries. On the Republican side, state parties determine the process, meaning there can be a caucus or a primary, a "winner-take-all" system as in California, or a "proportional" system where candidates get delegates based on their percentage of the vote.

The Democratic Party has a national proportional system--any candidate who wins more than 15% of the popular vote wins some delegates. There are also nearly 800 "super delegates," Democratic Party leaders not pledged to any candidate. The party also strongly urges ethnic diversity, especially since Jesse Jackson won a larger portion of the popular vote than he garnered in delegates in 1988.

Republican National Committee spokesman Mark Pfeifle said the GOP's system is more grass-roots. "In the Democratic Party, Gov. Gray Davis gets an automatic front-row seat. We allow our state parties to decide how to run their own primaries."

But Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jenny Backus said her party is far more inclusive, urging state parties to include women, minorities, and gays and lesbians. "They like to try to imply we're top down and they're bottom up, but nothing could be further from the truth," she said.

There is a slim chance of a floor fight at this year's Republican convention. If McCain were to win the popular vote in California, but not the GOP vote, challengers might seek to be seated.

Delegates from many states are pledged to vote for the candidate they were elected to represent, but only through the first or second ballot.

Whatever happens, Gimpel predicts that McCain's successful appeal to crossover voters in open primaries will prompt party leaders to try to return to "closed" primaries, or compromises like California's.

"Actually, I have to hand it to California," he said. "What you've got there is a closed primary with an illusion of openness."


Political Math 101

The Democratic and Republican parties use different methods to determine how many delegates each state--as well the territories and District of Columbia--can send to their national conventions. How complex are those methods? You don't have to be a CPA, but it helps.

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