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Could Michigan and Florida Decide the Democratic Presidential Race?

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Florida and Michigan could go from having no voice in the Democratic presidential primary to providing the deciding votes. Both states have already held their nominating contests, but the Democratic National Committee refuses to seat their delegates after they moved up their primary dates. Now calls are increasing for the two states to hold a re-vote. On Thursday, Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean called for a do-over but said the DNC would not foot the bill. We speak with John Nichols of The Nation. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For our first segment today, we turn to the campaign trail. Florida and Michigan could go from having no voice in the Democratic presidential primary to providing the deciding votes. Both states have already held their primaries, but the Democratic National Committee refuses to seat their delegates.

Party officials in both states had moved up their vote dates in protest of what they call the unfair influence of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina as the first contests. Senator Hillary Clinton won the Michigan and Florida contests in January. But the votes were widely seen as meaningless, because none of the candidates campaigned in Florida, while in Michigan, Senator Barack Obama and John Edwards stayed off the ballot, urging voters to choose “uncommitted.”

But amidst the tightest nomination race in decades, there is now talk of holding a new vote. Florida and Michigan have a combined 366 delegates, a huge and likely decisive prize. On Thursday, Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean called for a do-over but left responsibility to the states.

    HOWARD DEAN: The rules were set a year-and-a-half ago. Florida and Michigan voted for them, then decided that they didn’t need to abide by the rules. Well, when you’re in a contest, you do need to abide by the rules. Everybody has to play by the rules, out of respect for both campaigns and the other forty-eight states.

    So, Florida and Michigan basically have two choices. They can come back to the DNC with a set of delegate election procedures that do comply with the rules that the other forty-eight states honored, or they can appeal to the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention. That’s their choice. We’re delighted that this conversation is taking place. It’s not the voters’ fault in Florida and Michigan that they didn’t get included. So we think it’s a good thing to have these discussions going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Dean went on to say the Democratic National Committee won’t foot the bill for a new vote, which could cost up to $35 million combined. Dean says the Democratic Party needs that money for the presidential campaign and wants the states to pay. Officials in both states have been resistant.

John Nichols has been closely following what’s emerging as a critical issue here in 2008’s race. He is the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine and maintains the blog “The Online Beat” at He is also associate editor of Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. John is actually joining us from Toronto, Canada.

Welcome, John.

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s good to be with you, Amy. I’m up in Canada watching the Canadian part of this race.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is what?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, of course, the whole NAFTA fight and the huge controversy in Canada over the leaking of memos suggesting that there were conversations between the Obama campaign and the Canadian government. Now, we have the revelation that there may also have been conversations between the Clinton campaign and the Canadian government. So, we find that to cover American politics, sometimes you have to go to Canada.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have covered the Barack Obama aspect of that quite a bit. What are they saying about Hillary Clinton?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, it turns out that Ian Brodie, the chief of staff for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is by all accounts the likely source of a lot of these leaks as regards to the Obama campaign, or at least as regards to these conversations, had apparently initially told CTV television reporters that they had been having conversations with — the Canadians had been having some sort of conversations with the Clinton campaign. Now, this was before any revelations as regards the Obama campaign. So this story just gets deeper and deeper and more complex.

Jack Layton, the head of the Canadian New Democratic Party, which is their left party here, has called for the firing of Ian Brodie, the chief of staff, for interfering in US elections. They’ve also called for bringing in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate the leak. So this is turning into quite a controversy up here, but also one that’s very significant for American politics, because, of course, Hillary Clinton’s win in Ohio was aided a great deal by the leaks as regards conversations between the Obama campaign and the Canadians. In fact, late-breaking voters who said that trade was a big issue for them in Ohio broke by a two-to-one margin in favor of Senator Clinton. And so, this is not just a footnote story. This is something that’s affecting our politics in the States.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about what’s happening right now in Florida and Michigan. Explain how it happened that both of them moved up their primary dates, despite the fact the DNC said, if you do, you lose the right to have delegates at the convention.

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. For decades, the state of Michigan has passionately objected to the stranglehold that New Hampshire and Iowa have had on the opening of the nominating process. Michigan officials have long argued that their state, which is much more diverse, which has an industrial economy as well as a farm economy, and is traditionally a very critical state in November, would be a much better place to start the process. More recently, Florida has made a lot of the same objections, saying that it being one of the classic swing states would be a logical place to start the process.

This year, as — or really, last year, as they began to set the schedule for the nominating primaries and caucuses, both Michigan and Florida said very early on that they intended to go early, to go toward the start of the process. They didn’t necessarily say they would jump ahead of New Hampshire and Iowa, but they wanted to be at an early stage. The DNC would not allow that for a variety of reasons. And so, the Florida and Michigan legislatures, in combination with their governors, decided simply to schedule primaries. The DNC said you can’t do this. They said if you go ahead, we’re not going to allow you to seat delegates. Florida and Michigan went ahead.

And they went ahead on an interesting theory, Amy. Their concept was that if they scheduled primaries and held them, that the eventual nominee of the party would almost certainly be chosen early on in the process — that’s why they wanted to go early; they wanted to influence the process — and then would seat their delegations using the authority that a nominee usually has over the national convention to just basically order things to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, John, let me — let me —-

JOHN NICHOLS: What they didn’t count on was a [inaudible] -—

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, let me ask something, and that is, both Governor Crist, the Republican governor of Florida, Governor Granholm, the Democratic governor of Michigan, signed this — issued a joint statement saying that their delegates should be seated, should be counted. But isn’t it true, in Florida, it wasn’t the Democrats in the legislature, despite what the governor said, that it was a bipartisan decision — the Democrats in the legislature did not want to buck the Democratic Party, but the part of the bill that said the primary would be moved forward was attached to a very important bill, that you would get receipts for voting on electronic voting machines —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- something that they have had to deal with for a long time, and they were not able to amend the bill to take out the moving up of the primary. So the Democrats did vote for it, but only because they wanted the more important issue of receipts from their electronic voting machines, a paper record.

JOHN NICHOLS: You’re precisely right, Amy. You’re precisely right. And also, you should know that in Michigan there was a huge fight, as well. Organized labor in Michigan opposed a lot of the ideas for how to go ahead with an early primary, because they felt that Governor Granholm was essentially gaming the system to create an early win for Hillary Clinton. So in both states, there were debates on the ground, and there were many, many different —-

AMY GOODMAN: Why would Michigan in an early primary be automatically a vote for Hillary Clinton? I mean, even with how it turned out in Michigan, though she was named and the other candidates were not, the uncommitted vote, which would have been for Obama and Edwards, was very high. I mean, I think it was -— it turned out being something like fifty-five to forty, but they weren’t even named.

JOHN NICHOLS: Absolutely right. What the theory was, it was that an early primary would be advantageous for Hillary Clinton, because Michigan, being a big state, coming early on after Ohio and New Hampshire, would more likely be a place that Clinton, who — remember, these decisions were being made last year — would have a financial and name recognition advantage that would benefit her in a primary setting. So that was the theory.

What wasn’t counted on, of course, and in all of these calculations, what was not counted on was the remarkable surge of Barack Obama’s campaign, the fact that he would (a) raise as much or more money — now more money — than Hillary Clinton, and (b) become really what can only be described as a political phenomenon. So even by the time that the primary got to Michigan in mid-January, Obama was such a phenomenon that Congressman John Conyers and his wife were able to launch a campaign, essentially, a very low-budget campaign, for the undecided vote or the uncommitted vote and to get roughly 40 percent of the vote for it. Additionally, Dennis Kucinich got five percent of the vote in Michigan. So, in fact, you see 45 percent of Michiganders who went to the polls voted for somebody other than Hillary Clinton.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Nichols, political writer for and The Nation

magazine. The New Republic is reporting on its <a href= >blog that a member of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee said Michigan plans to get out of its uncounted delegate problem by announcing a new caucus — a new caucus — in its uncounted — in the next few days. The source said, “They want to play. They know how to do caucuses. That was their plan all along, before they got cute with the primary,” the blog said. What is your response to that, the difference between a primary and a caucus, and who’s for what?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, this is the interesting situation. Obviously, organized labor in Michigan has traditionally favored caucuses, because they’re very well organized. They know how to get people to caucuses. And historically, the Michigan caucuses have tended to go quite liberal. Remember that Jesse Jackson did very, very well in Michigan back in 1984 and ’88. And so, there is a desire there on the part of many folks for it. And I certainly understand that.

But my own inclination is toward primaries. I think primaries draw a much higher number of voters, and they tend to be a much better reflection, particularly the sentiments of working-class voters, low-income voters and folks who, frankly, can’t spend an hour or two at a caucus. So I’m much more a fan of primaries than caucuses, in general.

But at the end of the day — let’s be clear about one thing — there is no question that something has to happen in both Michigan and Florida to have a new delegate selection process. You cannot seat the delegates chosen in those primaries in January, because you had candidates who had agreed not to participate and then you had other candidates who were participating, sort of vaguely playing games around the system. This is — the January primaries in Michigan and Florida were dysfunctional primaries. If you try to seat delegates from them, you’re going to have huge credential fights at the convention. And frankly, neither the Clinton nor the Obama campaign wants that, because at that level, you’re going to have a crisis, really, on the convention floor. And you can bet that on the days that the Democratic National Convention would be fighting about seating Florida or Michigan, you’d have John McCain campaigning in Florida and Michigan.

So the bottom line is, the Democrats will do something. Whether it’s new caucuses or primaries in these states remains to be seen. But again, I think that those of us who believe America has a severe democracy deficit ought to be in favor of primaries, because the primaries bring many, many more people into the process and, I think, provide a much clearer read of what popular sentiment is.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, when you look at the responses of the candidates, you have Hillary Clinton saying, “I think every vote should count,” and you have Barack Obama saying, well, “We played by the rules.” I would think that Hillary Clinton’s response plays much better with people around the country, not the bureaucratic response that Barack Obama is giving, though he did play by the rules.

JOHN NICHOLS: Absolutely. This is sort of the tragedy for the Obama campaign. There’s simply no question that they played by the rules. All the campaigns made agreements not to go into these states, or at least particularly Florida. And in Florida, the amazing thing is that Hillary Clinton, who had agreed not to campaign there, of course flew into the Florida on the Sunday before the primary, made a very high-profile appearance at an airport, got photographed with the palm trees behind her, and then went to two, quote-unquote, “closed fundraisers” and claimed that that was not campaigning. So the fact of the matter is that the Obama campaign was disadvantaged here.

But at the end of the day, you know, arguing bureaucracy as regards democracy is not a smart strategy. The fact of the matter is that neither the Obama nor the Clinton campaign wants to be fighting about who to seat and how to seat people at the convention. In fact, if you don’t have new primaries or at least new caucuses in Florida and Michigan, neither campaign really has a chance to get to the majority level in delegates that could even win that vote necessarily, or at least win it in a clean way without some nasty superdelegate intervention. So, at the end of the day, my sense is, in talking to both Clinton and Obama aides — and these are high-level aides in both camps — that they will both ultimately agree to a new process, and you will see both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, at some point in May or June, campaigning once more — or actually for the first time in Michigan and in Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, I want to thank you for being with us, political writer for The Nation magazine, also the associate editor of the Capital Times, the newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. Those are some of the stories we’re covering at this hour. When we come back, we look at John McCain and his refusal to disassociate from the Reverend John Hagee.

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