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Late Bloomer

Don't Look Now, But Maryland's Presidential Primary Might Actually Make a Difference in 2008

Tom Chalkley

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 2/6/2008

Local political animals have been downright twitchy in anticipation of the Feb. 12 presidential primaries in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. For the first time since 1984, they say, Marylanders' votes will have a bearing on the parties' nominations. Instead of continuing our state's humdrum history of merely ratifying--or fecklessly rejecting--winners predetermined by other states, we'll be in the mix. If all plays out as predicted, the world will be watching Maryland (and our Potomac River neighbors) instead of yawning and checking the basketball scores.

Maryland's primary comes one week after the dreadfully nicknamed Super Duper Tuesday, touted as the largest primary election in American history, with 22 states participating. In past elections, Super Tuesday-type events have been known to make or break candidates; in 1992, for example, Bill Clinton's victories in six out of eight Super Tuesday primaries made him the Democrats' inevitable nominee. This year, however, both Republican and Democratic voters are so divided that a supercalifragilistic sweep is seen as unlikely for the GOP and nearly impossible among the Democrats. (Readers of this article, unlike the writer, know the Super Duper results, which were spewing out of voting machines around the same time that this issue of City Paper rolled off the presses.) With the races in all likelihood still hotly contested after Feb. 5, Maryland will bask in the glare of national campaign media.

"I think it's great that Maryland--that the Chesapeake states--are still in play," enthuses state Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-43rd District), a Clinton operative whose political activism began with Robert Kennedy's presidential bid in 1968. She notes that women voters and African-American activists have long played a major role in Maryland politics. Now they will be rewarded. "There should be great excitement and energy around this race," she says, "because we have candidates whose faces reflect ours."

Increased attention and excitement will bring a number of other side benefits to Maryland: Candidates of both parties will visit the state and lavish attention on local issues; political money will flow to local businesses; up-and-coming area activists will get a taste of the big game.

The media tend to focus on primary wins and losses on the state level, which not only make good headlines and sound bites but also have unquestionable psychological impact on voters. Still, what wins a party's nomination is the accumulation of delegates--a fairly byzantine process. For example, Hillary Clinton was the top vote-getter in New Hampshire and thereby "won the state," but she racked up only 11 New Hampshire delegates, compared to 12 for Barack Obama, who garnered more of the state's "superdelegates"--elected state officials, Democratic National Committee (DNC) members, and other party leaders. In order to clinch the Democratic nomination, a candidate must rack up at least 2,025 loyal delegates, the "magic number" that is half of the total delegates at the convention, plus one. For Republicans, the magic number is 1,191.

Here's how the score stood going into Feb. 5, according to CNNPolitics.com: On the Republican side, John McCain had racked up 97 delegates, Mitt Romney 74, and Mike Huckabee 29. (These numbers include pledged delegates won in primaries, plus small numbers of Republican National Committee delegates who have committed themselves to the candidates.) Among the Democrats, who use a very different system for allocating delegates, Obama had won 63 pledged delegates, Clinton 48. Add the superdelegates, and Clinton is ahead, with a total of 232 to Obama's 158. (John Edwards dropped out of the race with a total of 62 delegates, who will go to the convention as uncommitted.)

Of all these candidates, D or R, only Clinton is more than 10 percent of the way to her party's magic number. Still, her race with Obama is so close that Maryland's pundit di tutti pundits, University of Baltimore professor John Willis, is looking forward to a fight at the convention. "I've been waiting for this for years," says Willis, who lectures on government and public policy.

No matter how exciting the Maryland race may be, it's unlikely to give any candidate a massive boost forward. While the Republican Party still allows its state affiliates the option of winner-take-all primaries, Democrats abolished the practice in 1988 and instituted a proportional system. Very simply put, under Democratic Party rules, any presidential candidate who gets more than 15 percent of a primary vote will get his or her proportionate share of that state's delegates at the Democratic National Convention. To further complicate--and politicize--the process, proportional representation applies only to Maryland's 70 pledged delegates. The rest of the state's delegation consists of 29 superdelegates--an unusually high proportion because so many national DNC members happen to live in Maryland. That might favor Clinton, who is supposedly the "establishment" candidate.

Regardless of which Democrat comes out ahead, Maryland will send a mixed batch of Clinton and Obama delegates to the convention, and how they could effect the eventual margin of victory is anyone's guess.

Still, is it too much to dream that Marylanders' votes might--just this once in 24 years--actually count for something on primary day? Or is it too little? After all, we are (to cite an old state slogan) "America in Miniature," with a cross section of demographics that mirrors the United States far more than the blanched electorates of first caucus Iowa and first primary New Hampshire. Maryland has more voters than both of them put together! Are we not citizens? Is this not a democracy?

Well, sort of. Primaries, unlike general elections, aren't part of our carefully checked-and-balanced constitutional system; they are a creation of political parties, wherein politics often trumps notions of fairness.

The arbitrary but all-important primary schedule is the product of what Willis calls "continual wrangling" between both major parties' national committees--the DNC and RNC--and their respective state organizations. Willis stresses that the national and state organizations have distant relationships and sometimes work at cross purposes. For mostly parochial reasons, states yearn to be in the spotlight, and going early in the calendar is one way to get more attention. The national committees would rather stretch things out and not front-load the process--which is why the Democratic Party is punishing Michigan and Florida for jumping ahead of the official calendar. New Hampshire, with its "first-in-the-nation" status written, unilaterally, into its state constitution, has always inspired jealous grumbles from later, bigger, more representative states (that is, nearly all other states). In recent, increasingly media-frenzied election years, the resentment has ramped up, and so has the race to go next after New Hampshire. This year, for states that couldn't or didn't want to squeeze all the way up front, Super Duper Tuesday offered a chance to grab a scrap of limelight--a dubious opportunity, as the candidates will have to be everywhere and nowhere at once.

Willis calls the rush toward early primaries "politically stupid" because they tend to result in earlier de facto nominations. That gives opponents more time to beat up on the presumed nominee, and it means that voters are choosing their November candidate on the issues of February and March.

Over the years, Maryland has generally failed to elbow its way to the front of the pack, but not for lack of trying. Having happily voted in May since 1912, Maryland moved its primaries up to March in 1988 in a bid for greater relevance. This year, as part of the general stampede toward the early end, we jumped to Feb. 12. But as things worked out, the preceding Tuesday became the Super Duper one, and once again Maryland finds itself shuffling along on the trailing end of the crowd. Altogether, in 2008, 32 states will have held primaries or caucuses for either or both parties before Maryland gets a vote in edgewise.

In past years, lateness has generally meant that Maryland's primaries end up in one of two rather glory-free categories: 1) mere "amens" to what earlier states have already overwhelmingly decided, or 2) consolation prizes for candidates who were destined for also-ran status, even if they didn't know it at the time. While the dichotomy is crude and simplistic, it helps explain why 2008 is looking so pleasantly exceptional.

In the decades since the 1950s, Maryland's "amen" primaries have included 1960 (John F. Kennedy won every primary he entered; Nixon was unchallenged), 1980 (when incumbent Jimmy Carter brushed off an early primary challenge from Ted Kennedy and then lost to Ronald Reagan), 1996 (incumbent Bill Clinton and the GOP's Bob Dole, already assured of winning), and 2004 (John Kerry in a comfortable lead among the Democrats; incumbent George W. Bush unchallenged in his party).

What I've called consolation-prize primaries are more interesting. In these contests, the nominations were still in play, but Maryland picked the ultimate losers. These races display Maryland as a quirky, independent state--or, perhaps, as a fickle state, subject to sudden gusts of history and the manipulations of powerful men.

The weirdest of these elections was the primary of 1972. In that watershed year, the national Democratic Party was violently at odds with itself: Its presidential field included establishment liberal/former vice president Hubert Humphrey; the left-liberal anti-war candidate George McGovern; and, on the Dixiecrat right, the notorious George Wallace, governor of Alabama and erstwhile standard-bearer of racial segregation. This was the third of Wallace's four tries for the presidency; in 1964, running as a Democrat, Wallace had come close to winning Maryland's primary, but was blocked by "favorite son" candidate Daniel Brewster, a surrogate for President Lyndon Johnson. In 1968 (a year when Maryland held no primary elections, due to a state constitutional convention), Wallace was the nominee of the right-wing American Independent Party.

On May 15, 1972, the day before the Maryland primary, Wallace was stumping for votes and media coverage in the Washington suburbs. A stop in Wheaton was met by a curious but generally unfriendly crowd; Wallace didn't bother to shake any hands. In Laurel, however, Wallace was cheered. As the candidate moved among his well-wishers, an apolitical glory-seeker named Arthur Bremer shot him four times in the stomach. (Bremer had originally planned to assassinate Nixon but was stymied by the president's tight security.) Wallace survived and, in what was generally regarded as a sympathy vote, Maryland Democrats gave the primary victory to Wallace. The Democratic nomination eventually went to McGovern, who lost to Nixon in a landslide. Wallace, paralyzed from the waist down, ran for president again in 1976. When Bremer--a model prisoner--was released from prison this past November, it was reported in the media without much comment. So much for glory-seeking.

In 1976, the Maryland consolation prize went to the eccentric 38-year-old governor of California, Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, who had hastily mounted a challenge to the front-running Carter, former governor of Georgia. Brown got into Maryland too late to round up a slate of delegates, and didn't have much organization of his own, yet he surged just before the election, swiping chunks of the electorate that earlier polls had shown going to Carter. Newspaper reports of the time immediately credited Brown's win to the disciplined party machinery of Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel.

"It had nothing to do with Jerry Brown," Willis concurs. It was all about Mandel, acting out an old grudge against Carter, with whom he'd butted heads on the National Governors Association. As Willis explains, Mandel and Carter were "polar opposites" as politicians: the Georgian saw himself as pious and principled, while Mandel sprang from the backroom deal-making tradition of Baltimore. Mandel, who was at the time under indictment for racketeering, also used the electoral exercise to show that he was still in charge of Maryland. After the gift from Mandel, Brown had scattered primary victories, including his home state of California, but he never gained traction against Carter.

In the '80s, Maryland mattered--to Democrats. Reagan was unchallenged on the Republican side in 1984, but the Democratic nomination was up in the air. "[Marylanders] were relevant in 1984," Willis says. "We helped push [former vice president Walter] Mondale over the top. [U.S. Sen.] Gary Hart was a lot closer than people realize." Willis himself was deeply involved in engineering Mondale's big delegate take; this was the last campaign before proportional representation became the rule. The intelligent, accomplished, charisma-free Mondale waged a lame campaign against Reagan and became the template for a type of doomed Democratic candidate.

In 1988, with George H.W. Bush already the strong front-runner of the Republican pack, Democrats were again divided. Marylanders voted on that year's Super Tuesday and joined five other states in swinging to Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts. The Rev. Jesse Jackson came in second. By the end of 1988, the joke was that "`Dukakis' is Greek for `Mondale.'"

Forward to March 1992. In a weak field of Democratic candidates, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was perceived as front-runner even after losing the New Hampshire primary to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. Maryland, however, strongly supported Tsongas, a prim social liberal who preached balanced budgets and labeled the glad-handing Clinton a "pander bear." Tsongas' no-nonsense, professorial quality played well in the state's wealthier liberal strongholds, while the Democratic left was divided among an older but still eccentric Jerry Brown and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. The Maryland primary, on March 3, proved to be Tsongas' next-to-last hurrah--a true consolation prize. One week later, Clinton won six of the eight Super Tuesday races, including delegate-rich Texas and Florida; Tsongas took only his home state and little Rhode Island. From then on, Clinton was a juggernaut. Maryland can take no credit--or blame--for that Democratic victory.

There's a side story to the 1984 primary that illustrates why, in spite of their many frustrations, these clumsy exercises in democracy are still important to the life of politics. Among Gary Hart's field representatives in Maryland was a young lawyer from Montgomery County. Maggie McIntosh, a Hart supporter that year, remembers "Martin O'Malley calling me up telling me there was a meeting of Hart people at the Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point." That was O'Malley's first foray into Baltimore street politics; 24 years later, he's the governor of Maryland. McIntosh says she had a similar encounter four years later, at the Dukakis office in Boston, working with "a nice young kid in the press office, named George Stephanopoulos."

To this day, she says, "when you walk in the door of a headquarters in any national campaign, you find the next generation of young Democrats. They want to be part of their country and where it's headed." Primaries are, simply put, training grounds for future politicians and operatives of all sorts. Presidential years, McIntosh says, are also great opportunities to register new voters: "This is the year Democrats can do party-building."

As you read this, the local campaign organizations are working themselves into a frenzy as the minutes tick past until the polls open on Feb. 12. Looking beyond 2008, Maryland's moment in the spotlight will likely be remembered as just that: a moment. Four years from now, Marylanders may very well lapse back into political obscurity. The primary system will still be an awkward, uneven, and unfair way to select our national leaders. The irrational scheduling, the inherent inequalities of the states, and the volatility of money and media all distort what should, ideally, be an orderly and thoughtful process.

I asked John Willis what, if anything, could be done to rationalize the primary process. He raised, then demolished, the idea of a nationwide primary day: It would involve too much territory at once, and candidates would have great incentive to ignore vast swaths of the country as they concentrated on vote-rich pockets. Better, he says, would be a series of regional primaries, rotating every four years so that no region would monopolize first or second place. The concept sounds reasonable, orderly, and fair. But don't hold your breath: Willis has been pushing this pet idea of his for years.

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