Iamge: Hillary Clinton campaigns in Florida
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images file
As Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton speaks in Boca Raton, Fla. on May 21, a supporter holds up a sign reading, "Count Florida Michigan Hillary For America."
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 5/29/2008 6:42:50 PM ET 2008-05-29T22:42:50

No Michigan or Florida delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this August?

Unthinkable, right? Well thinkable, maybe, but it probably won't happen.

And yet exactly how to resolve the impasse over the seating of the Michigan and Florida delegates?

That's the delicate job to be handled Saturday by the 30-member Rules & Bylaws Committee (RBC) of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) as it meets in Washington. On hand for the meeting will be pro-Clinton protesters who vow to defend their candidate's right to delegates.

If this quarrel isn’t resolved skillfully it could leave some lasting scars and could hurt the Democrats’ chances of winning Michigan and Florida in the November election. Aggrieved Democrats in those states might decide to say home on Nov. 4.

Michigan could be especially important since no Democratic presidential candidate has lost the state since 1988.

At its heart, this is a dry, lawyerly dispute about party rules and how to interpret them. But it has an emotional edge, of course — due to the never-say-die combat between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama which has now dragged on far longer than most anyone predicted it would.

Here’s why this wrangle over rules has turned into quite the campaign event.

When and how did this dispute start?

In August of 2006, the DNC voted to adopt rules on the selection of delegates to the convention and on the timing of primaries and caucuses.

Video: What about Florida and Michigan? It also approved punishments for state parties that might choose to jump outside of the DNC-approved schedule.

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It was a vote by voice only, but it appears that DNC members from New Hampshire were the only ones to vote against the rules.

According to those rules, only four states (Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina) could hold their primaries or caucuses prior to Feb. 5, 2008.

After the DNC adopted these rules, the Democratic presidential contenders pledged to not campaign in states that held contests prior to Super Tuesday.

In defiance of the rules, Florida and Michigan decided in 2007 to hold their primaries ahead of the DNC-approved Feb. 5 start date.

In August 2007, the RBC deprived Florida of all 210 of its delegate votes. It did the same to Michigan in December of 2007, nixing the state’s 156 delegate votes.

On Jan. 15, 2008, Michigan held its primary. Democratic contenders Obama, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, and John Edwards had removed their names from the ballot.

But Obama supporters in Michigan urged Democrats to vote “uncommitted” on the ballot as a way of expressing their support for Obama.

Clinton won the Michigan primary with 55 percent of the vote. "Uncommitted" clocked in with 40 percent of the vote.

On Jan. 29, 2008, Clinton won the Florida primary with 50 percent of the vote, compared to Obama’s 33 percent. Edwards got 14 percent. 

The names of all the Democratic presidential contenders were on the ballot in Florida.

Who appoints the members of the Rules & Bylaws Committee?

DNC chairman Howard Dean.

Can either Obama or Clinton wrap up the nomination based on the decisions at Saturday’s meeting?

No.

The most likely favorable scenario for Clinton is that the committee allows half of the Florida and Michigan delegations to be seated and that she gains some additional delegates. But she would not gain enough to offset Obama’s delegate lead — which is around 200.

On the other hand, even if the RBC decides that no Florida and Michigan delegations can be seated at all, that decision would hurt Clinton, but would not in itself give Obama any additional delegates.

And as Clinton and her strategists often remind us, any delegate, whether an elected, pledged delegate or a superdelegate, can change his or her mind between now and the convention. An Obama delegate can decide to vote for Clinton, or a Clinton delegate can decide to support Obama.

Will the outcome of the RBC meeting change the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination — which is now (not including Michigan and Florida) — 2,026?

Very likely it will. If the RBC decides to allow some of the Florida and Michigan delegates to be seated, then the total number of delegates at the convention will increase, as will the number needed to clinch the nomination.

A simple majority (50 percent plus one) is needed to win the nomination.

What is the Clinton campaign’s position on resolving this dispute?

The Clinton campaign says that the Michigan and Florida delegations ought to be seated at the convention and that the results of the primaries in those two states should be binding.

The allocation of delegates, said Clinton campaign strategist and RBC member Harold Ickes, “must fairly reflect the popular vote.”

Clinton supporter Tina Flournoy, who is a member of the RBC, said the Michigan and Florida Democrats should not be punished by being deprived of their chance to take part in the nominating of the party’s presidential candidate.

The two states, she implied, have already suffered enough by being deprived of having the presidential contenders campaign in their states in December and January.

What is the Obama campaign’s position?

Obama and his aides want to get this controversy behind them as quickly as possible so they can focus on the general election. They’re willing to make a deal in order to do that.

Obama is willing to have some of the delegates seated. His campaign manager David Plouffe said Wednesday, “We’re open to some compromise that’s fair.... If there’s a compromise, she (Clinton) is going to net (gain) a not insignificant amount of delegates,” Plouffe said. He called this “a major concession” by Obama.

But Plouffe added that Obama “is not going to support something that gives her too many delegates.”

He did not specify what “too many” was.

How could the RBC solve the problem of Michigan’s uncommitted delegates — those elected back in January at the behest of Obama supporters?

One proposal, endorsed by several Michigan Democratic leaders, is to split the Michigan delegation with 69 delegates going to Clinton and 59 going to Obama. But Clinton supporter and DNC member Joel Ferguson objected Thursday to that proposal.

In theory there is nothing to prevent the uncommitted delegates from voting for whomever they want at the convention.

There's also no way to know if all those "uncommitted" voters actually intended to vote for Obama.

Do the some of the RBC members have an inherent conflict of interest since some have endorsed or are working for either Clinton or Obama?

“That question makes me angry,” said Flournoy who said she had served on the RBC for many years and that the committee could come up with a decision that is “grounded in the rules” and “fair to the people who voted.”

Was the Jan. 29 Florida primary a genuine indication of strength for Clinton – or were other factors at work?

It is difficult to know for sure. In mid-January, John Edwards was still a viable candidate and he did not campaign in Florida, nor did Obama or Clinton. Who knows what the outcome would have been if they'd campaigned there?

Also on the Florida ballot that same day was a proposed state constitutional amendment to cut taxes. That ballot measure drove up Florida voter turnout.

But despite not campaigning in Florida or running ads there, Clinton did seem to signal to her Florida supporters that they ought to vote. “Florida will vote on Tuesday, which is such an important state for the Democrats to win in November 2008,” Clinton told Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" the Friday before the primary. “I'm looking forward to seeing what happens there.”

Clinton’s robust showing in Florida indicated that despite being told by some in the news media that the primary did not really matter, nearly 1.7 million Florida Democrats showed up to vote anyway. And more of them voted for her than for any of her rivals.

To whom can Michigan or Florida appeal if the Democrats from those states are not willing to accept the Rules & Bylaws Committee’s decision?

There is a 186-member Standing Committees on Credentials which according to party rules “shall determine and resolve questions concerning the seating of delegates and alternates to the Convention.”

But the final judges are the delegates at the convention itself: “The (credentials) committee shall report to the Convention for final determination and resolution of all such questions.”

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