How Howard Dean's Florida Ambiguity Helps Obama and Hurts Hillary

Categories: Campaign 2008

This is the press release Howard Dean, whose offices were picketed this week by hundreds of angry Floridians, should issue as soon as possible:

“The Democratic National Committee rules only apply to delegates and the Rules Committee has so far barred the seating of any delegates from Florida. But the rules say nothing about how the comparative popular vote between candidates should be tabulated. Thus, the DNC’s delegate ruling has no effect on whether superdelegates who are using the popular vote as a measure of the relative strength of the candidates should or should not include Florida’s popular vote in their national tally. It is up to each superdelegate to decide if they want to count or discount the 1.7 million Florida Democrats who voted. I am issuing this statement because so many observers of this close contest have misinterpreted the DNC’s actions and conflated the delegate and popular vote questions.”

Instead, Dean has resisted inquiries from the Voice, by email and phone, for several weeks asking for a straightforward answer to the popular vote question.

His spokesman, Damien LaVera, who responded by email to some questions, would not answer any inquiries about the Florida popular vote. The unofficial word from the DNC, which no one will say on the record, is that it “doesn’t keep track of the popular vote” so it’s “not going to comment on it,” pointing out that the rules it enforced against Florida are “named the delegate selection rules.” Dean has also sidestepped the issue in his recent swing of television interviews, including Meet the Press.

Dean’s stubborn silence has led skilled commentators like Politico’s Roger Simon to conclude: “Under Hillary Rules, Clinton counts the popular vote in Florida, where candidates were forbidden to campaign. The Democratic Party does not recognize the results of the Florida primary.” Contacted by the Voice and asked to point out when the DNC has discounted the Florida popular vote, Simon referred us to his own story of August 27, 2007, when he reported on the DNC decision to reject the seating of “all its delegates,” as Simon put it. In fact, Simon wrote in that story that the popular vote in the Florida primary would still matter “because the media concentrate mostly on the beauty contest anyway,” predicting that “the winner of Florida would still get an early boost in the process.”

Unless Dean explains on the record what his minions say off it—namely that the delegate disqualification does not cancel out the popular preferences of a record number of Floridian Democrats—the numbers crunchers like NBC’s Chuck Todd will continue to routinely portray the margin as 500,000, when, with Florida, it would be 200,000.

Dean, Simon, Todd and every other talking or writing head on the national scene recognizes that the discounting of the Florida vote—which no one even bothers to explain—shapes the rest of the discussion about the race. With Florida, Clinton has a chance of being ahead in the popular vote at the end of the primaries. Without it, she doesn’t. That makes the consequences of not counting it as partisan as the consequences of counting it. Of course, the Clinton camp is trying to make a similar case for counting Michigan, but, as Simon and others have noted, Obama’s withdrawal from that primary makes any inclusion of the Michigan tally unfair on its face.

Neutral observers make the reasonable argument that Florida’s vote should not be considered part of the national comparison because Barack Obama has repeatedly narrowed margins in states where he has campaigned, and neither he nor Clinton were allowed to campaign in Florida. The absence of a campaign, they say, heightened the value of her greater name recognition. The fact is, though, that Obama alone did a major national cable advertising buy that ran in Florida for eight days leading up to the January 29 contest. That buy was designed for the 22-state Super Tuesday races, but instead of maximizing his exposure in the week before February 5, he stretched it out over two weeks, and saturated CNN and MSNBC before the Florida election. Combined with the national news coverage Obama had received since Iowa and the momentum that came with his South Carolina rout of Clinton, the cable buy made the Sunshine State’s primary close enough to a level playing field to count in popular tallies. Obama’s subsequent resistance to any effort to re-do it also undermines the critique of the January results.

Dean clearly hopes that his evasions on this elemental question of fairness will be seen as a demonstration of his unwillingness to take sides between the warring camps within his own party. It is the opposite. In the absence of an unambiguous statement clarifying the limits of the DNC’s delegate ruling, he is siding with Obama, whose recent conflating press releases have argued that “without the rogue states”—Florida and Michigan—“Obama is still up by 500,000 votes.” Everyone involved understands that it is Obama who is benefiting from the media decision not to include Florida’s vote in the popular vote boxscore that runs across every American television screen, on virtually every news channel, everyday.

Of course, the endlessly repeated omission of this vote, and Dean’s abdication, is not just affecting the candidates. It’s doubling the pain for Florida Democrats—not only are they invisible in the delegate tabulations, which the courts have ruled is clearly within the powers of the national party, they are phantoms in the popular tally, a nullification unsupported by any legal authority.

Since Dean isn’t talking, Ralph Dawson, his Yale roommate and member of the DNC Rules Committee, may be a window into his thinking. It was Dawson, a friend and adviser to Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, who made the motion to strip Florida of its delegates last year. An uncommitted superdelegate from New York, Dawson told the Voice: “My position is that the popular vote is a relevant concept because neither side is going to get to 2025 without superdelegates’ votes. When that happens, they can and should take into consideration whether it’s appropriate to consider Florida. Some would say yes, some would say no. The answer will be clear over time.”

Echoing Dean’s current state of indecision, Dawson argued peculiarly: “I have not come to a conclusion that it should count at this time. I think at some time, we could re-evaluate the votes.” Dawson did anticipate that Democrats might get to “the point where Florida’s ‘beauty contest’ will change” the popular vote winner. Should that happen, however, Dawson added: “But I’m not prepared to take it into consideration.” Dawson seems to be saying that he and his DNC friends will include Florida’s popular vote—much like its delegates—only after a nominee has been effectively determined without them.

Two other DNC allies, Donna Brazile, a power on the Rules Committee, and treasurer Andrew Tobias were in a similar state of avoidance. Tobias, who voted in the Florida primary, said he wasn’t willing to “make a statement” about whether his own vote should be counted in national popular comparisons. He said that party officials were “enthusiastically neutral” and seemed to think that his refusal to answer questions about counting the vote in his home state was an example of that, though the refusal was an implicit ratification of the Obama position.

Brazile battled the question rather than addressing it. Her email said: “There’s nothing in the rules” about popular votes “so this becomes a matter of personal preference.” But on the phone, she declined to say what “metric” she would use as a superdelegate in evaluating candidates. “I will not give credibility to one argument or another,” she said. Brazile also pointed out that the full popular vote in four caucus states is not being counted in the national tally either, and if it were, she said that would add to Obama’s total (if the primary rather than caucus results in one of those states, Washington, is factored into the ultimate popular vote tally, Obama’s gain from the four contests would be roughly 60,000 votes).

Mark Bubriski, a spokesman for Florida Democratic Party, whose leader Karen Thurman is uncommitted, certainly believes, as do many uncommitted would-be Florida delegates contacted by the Voice, that the popular vote should be part of the national calculations. “We have no say over what the national media does,” says Bubriski. “But the fact is 1.75 million voted, which was more than any other state that had voted at that point and in fact more than the other early states combined. The media should’ve been far more respectful of Florida voters.” State Senator Steve Geller, who says he’s also uncommitted, complained: “Somebody needs to explain why voters are being punished. It’s ridiculous how we have the highest voter turnout in Florida history and the votes are not being counted.”

Research assistance by: Kimberly Chin, Shaunna Murphy, Shea O'Rourke, Marguerite A. Suozzi, Adam Weinstein, John Wilwol


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