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Friday, July 19, 2024

The politics of proportionality

In 1972 just following the California Democratic primary I walked down to the President's Room off the U.S. Senate chambers where reporters met members and asked the chief attendant to speak to Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

In 1972 just following the California Democratic primary I walked down to the President’s Room off the U.S. Senate chambers where reporters met members and asked the chief attendant to speak to Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

McGovern and I, for that matter, had just returned from California where he had squeaked out a narrow victory over former Vice President Hubert Humphrey to become the leader in the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The senator, always affable and gracious, appeared promptly and said I must be as exhausted as he after weeks of a non-stop race from San Diego to San Francisco and beyond.

I apologized for bothering him but said that he should know that Humphrey had just filed a petition with the Democratic National Committee to be allotted a portion of California’s convention delegates based on his percentage of the total primary vote. That would be nearly half of the delegates and make the nominating contest much closer. McGovern looked stunned and off balance for a few seconds and then exploded in anger at what he clearly regarded as an effort to steal his hard won victory in the winner take all primary.

Rarely had I seen McGovern, a soft- spoken, friendly prairie liberal war hero and avowed opponent of Vietnam, who ran on a campaign of peace, so furious. His agitation grew as more than a dozen other reporters crowded into the room only a few minutes after I had given him the news. He pledged to fight the “theft” with everything he had. I was so startled by the change in his demeanor my lead for the next day read, “Peaceable George McGovern yesterday decided to beat his plowshare into a sword” over Humphrey’s brazen attempt to blunt McGovern’s victory.

Ironically only four years earlier, Humphrey had won the 1968 Democratic nomination at a tumultuous convention after never having entered a primary, succeeding to the honor following the assassination of front-running Sen. Robert F. Kennedy during the campaign for the California delegation. The dreariness of the whole affair, prompted the late Peter Lisagor of Knight Newspapers to write that Humphrey “could have done better in bankruptcy court.” McGovern, as we all know, went on to the ’72 nomination despite Humphrey’s efforts and to an overwhelming defeat by incumbent Richard M. Nixon.

So what is the significance of all this — particularly Humphrey’s move in California?

It was the first real attempt to change the winner-take-all contests still used by Republicans today into a more “democratic” process of proportional representation — one that has brought the selection to where it is now: an overly long nightmare that threatens to leave a large segment of its members alienated, costs millions upon millions more than it should, and has created split that could result in defeat for the eventual nominee in the fall election. To address the chaos, the DNC is considering whether to turn back the clock to the one-winner days.

Had that been the case in the current campaign, Sen. Hillary Clinton and not Sen. Barack Obama probably would have locked up the nomination much earlier by carrying most of the large states, including California. Having put together a string of sizable victories in southern states with large black populations and winning enough of the percentage in the big states, and convincing non-elected super delegates to the convention that he is a better choice, his nomination seems assured. Clinton’s final campaigns in the Kentucky and West Virginia primaries has done little but strain her financial resources and further increase the potential for a lasting party split.

The McGovern era (the former senator recently switched his allegiance from Clinton to Obama) “reforms” to democratize the process of choosing a nominee has cost the party six of the last nine presidential elections. The chaos this has produced at times can be compared to that of the 1972 convention when there were 80 vice presidential nominations and McGovern made his nationally televised acceptance speech in the wee hours of the morning when most Americans were asleep. To overcome some of the problems, the DNC came up with the idea of returning professionals to the process — thus, the super delegates made up of elected officials and party stalwarts. It is this group that will give the nomination to Obama.

While there is no perfect answer, a time limit on the length of the campaign with a set of well regulated regional primaries ending at a specific time would go a long way to cutting costs and cleaning up, for the Democrats at least, what has become an unholy mess.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)

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