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March 20, 2004
Can the Dems Dump Kerry?

With the very bad month that John Kerry has had so far, some people are questioning whether Kerry can actually survive to the the convention to be nominated. It's a question we were asked on our radio show last week, and one which we summarily dismissed. I still think it to be extremely unlikely, as it would be very damaging to the Democrats to dump someone who received a majority of primary votes.

But is it possible?

To answer this, I spent some time this morning going through the controlling documents of the Democratic convention and nominating process (Acrobat reader and No-Doz required). It's not as unequivocal as I had previously thought, at least not in the regulations. I had believed that there was a hard first-ballot requirement for pledged delegates to cast their vote for their candidate, in the same manner as the Electoral College, but the language in the "Call for the Democratic National Convention" is purposely vague. Article VIII, section F.3.c states (page 16):

All delegates to the National Convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.

That means that the individual delegate retains the ability to interpret what those "sentiments" might be, and to decide whether those "sentiments" considered would be those that existed at the time of the primary, or those that exist at the time of the convention. You could make an intellectual argument that the "sentiments" of the voters had radically changed in the past four months (being in July), after seeing stumbles and pratfalls from their putative nominee, and that voting for another candidate would accurately reflect their new sentiments.

So therefore my answer on the air last week was inaccurate -- Kerry could fail on the first ballot if enough delegates decided that their conscience would allow them to vote for someone else. But will they? Unlikely, for both structural and political reasons.

First, they have to vote for a qualified nominee, which means that their choices are limited to those who have already been in the race -- and all of those people got beat in the primaries. Only Kerry managed to win more than one state. In order to get someone else (say, Hillary) in the nominating process, a petition must be submitted prior to the actual balloting begins and have between 300 and 600 delegate signatures, who haven't signed another nominating petition, and which can include no more than 50 from a single delegation (state). The logistics of such an effort aren't impossible to manage, but will certainly be difficult.

Even if you work through the structural issues (which exist to specifically prevent a coup like this), it would be nothing short of a disaster politically. If Kerry fights it -- and seeing what we have of his character thus far, it would be likely that he would -- the convention would be presented with a candidate that was chosen by the people and one anointed by party leadership. If Kerry lost to the selected candidate, a good portion of the party will view it as they did Florida in 2000. Democratic voters will either flee to Nader, especially likely on the far-left fringe of the party, or will simply stay home out of frustration. If Kerry beat back the challenge, he would be so weakened by the battle that the expected convention momentum would likely be reversed, and he would be forced to battle from an even bigger hole than he faces at the moment.

In either case, the resultant discord and cynicism would be felt all the way down the ticket in each state, where Democrats hope to retake control of Congress and state houses. Anything that depresses voter turnout to any extent will kill those hopes and may lead to even larger Republican gains, setting the party back for years. On the other hand, it would also result in the expulsion of the party leadership that allowed it to happen -- and getting rid of Terry McAuliffe and the Clinton influence on the party may be worth all the pain, but I doubt that most Democrats would see it that way.

In the end, although it remains a technical possibility, the Democrats won't dump Kerry. You can expect him to sit atop the ticket in November, garnering the 40% of people who will vote for him just because of the (D) following his name. Just don't expect a whole lot more voters than that to support him, if the last two weeks are any indication of how Kerry campaigns through the rest of the season.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 20, 2004 10:26 AM

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