The 2008 election could do for the party nominating process what the 2000 election did for the general election: shine the spotlight into an area that could afford a little close examination.
Just as the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore was an ugly reminder for many Americans of the oft-overlooked electoral college, which ultimately decides elections, a closely-contested fight for party nominations could illustrate to voters that the nominations are the product of political parties, which are — to the probable surprise of many Americans — private political organizations. While the trend since the party reform movement of the early 1970s has brought more transparency to the nominating process, a countervailing set of forces have emerged this election season that muddy the waters. A desire to obtain an early nominee, for example, has led to the mega-primary day of February 5. But without established frontrunners in either party, things could be less, rather than more, settled after a day of so many contests.
Deference to geographic diversity prompted the elevating of the Nevada caucuses in the primary calendar. Yet this event helped create a puzzling result. Senator Clinton soundly defeated Senator Obama in the percent of support of the electorate, 51% to 45%. One of Mr. Obama's chief advisers, David Axelrod, took to the airwaves of MSNBC to trumpet his candidate's winning of 12 delegates to Mrs. Clinton's 13.
Later on Saturday, Mr. Obama's campaign recalculated its take determining that it, not Mrs. Clinton's campaign, had won more delegates in Nevada by 13 to 12. Mr. Axelrod told the Washington Post: "We're not treating this as a loss," he said. "We'll keep letting them spin the victories, and we'll keep taking the delegates." While Mr. Axelrod's words may have sounded like an effective bit of political swordsmanship in the heat of battle, they put forward a horrifically hypocritical message for a candidate, the essence of whose candidacy is change and reform. He was saying, in effect, never mind his candidate's loss of the popular vote in Nevada, the state's party rules left Mr. Obama with more delegates. That's not exactly a sentiment to rally the enthused masses over the Internet.
Both Michigan and Florida moved up the date of their primaries to ensure their relevance. In an effort to enforce its primary calendar — and the importance of traditional contests, such as Iowa and New Hampshire — the Democratic National Committee ruled that it would not recognize the delegates elected in either location. The Republican National Committee, using a similar rationale, took away half of the delegates in each location.
If a consensus front-runner emerges in both parties, the delegate fight will be only a footnote in the history of the election. If, however, either primary contest becomes a bitter battle of counting delegates, the decisions on Michigan and Florida will loom large. In this scenario, a little-noticed entity called a credentials committee will make the decision to recognize the delegates.
Already some are decrying the Democratic decision to abandon Michigan. "The Democrats made a mistake," Martin Luther King III told me last week. "They opted not to go into Michigan, a state with the largest number of unemployed people."
Finally, there are the special individuals who could be the 2008 equivalent of 2000's hanging chads, the so-called super-delegates. The Democratic National Convention in Denver will welcome 842 un-pledged super-delegates, the party's members of Congress, state governors, and senior party leaders. This means even if either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton has a close majority lead going into the convention, the nomination could still go to the other candidate.
Such a happening would require winning the support of the super-delegates, who make up almost 20% of the convention delegates. One can envision a scenario where a particular super-delegate, a powerful member of Congress, or a state governor, organizes a block of other super-delegates in support of a particular candidate and delivers them to the candidate of their choice. After three decades or reform and transparency, a convention could, in effect, be turned by a powerful boss — a reality sure to warm the hearts of American voters.
In other election years, a series of primary victories helps candidates accumulate or lose money or momentum and results in a presumptive nominee. Not this year. On the Republican side, a balkanized and dispirited electorate is split between a number of candidates. On the Democratic side, a bitter battle between two powerful candidates is playing out.
If these trends continue, each delegate and each primary contest will carry more weight and meaning, a possible recipe for further acrimony and disenchantment with our political system on the part of voters — just one consequence of an election year that is shaping up to be anything but ordinary.
Mr. Gitell (gitell.com) is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.