Who has the right credentials?


One of the basic themes of the long-running Democratic nominating campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton speaks to the need for a new era in American politics. But increasingly it seems as though their race could be decided by a method quite old–a decision by the convention credentials committee that is voted up or down on the convention floor.

Why is that? Because the Clinton-Obama battle could very well be decided by the fate of Florida and Michigan, two states currently denied representation because they violated party rules by holding January primaries. Clinton won the unsanctioned events but thus far that has settled nothing. Virtually everyone agrees that delegates from the two states, both vitally important to the Democrats in the fall, should be seated. But “how” is the rub. The candidates cannot agree, nor can party leaders find common ground for a solution.

Hence, the growing specter of the credentials committee. It is the court of last resort in the nominating process, the place where politics is at its rawest and the stakes are the highest, because which candidate’s delegates are seated on the convention floor often determines who wins and who loses.

In the fight for power, the credentials committee is a place where niceties are stripped aside, and a watching TV audience would see not smiles, but fangs. Nor would the infighting end there, because the losing side could file a minority report and send the issue on to the convention floor for final resolution. In short, it would be a viewer’s delight, but a nightmare for image-conscious Democratic leaders. And put in parlance long outdated, it would be a blast from the past.

In the days when primaries were few and far between, the convention ruled supreme in nominating politics and the credentials committee served as its gatekeeper. Credentials decisions proved decisive in President William Howard Taft’s victory over former President Theodore Roosevelt at the Republican convention in 1912. So too were they critical in paving the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s nomination by the Democratic convention in 1932. And Dwight Eisenhower’s selection over Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio at the 1952 GOP convention was not secured until Ike had scored several key credentials victories.

The last of these no holds barred credentials fights came in 1972, a crucial centerpiece in the nomination of Democrat George McGovern at the party’s tempestuous convention that July in Miami Beach. The nominating campaign had been a historic one–the beginning of a new era in presidential politics where the primaries were to reign supreme. And it was the first contest held after the Democrats had made a sweeping overhaul of their nominating rules to transfer power from party bigwigs to grass-roots activists in the primary and caucus states.

At first glance, the situation was the opposite of this year’s. Rather than a case of seating delegates from states that did not hold sanctioned primaries or caucuses, the 1972 fight centered on efforts to strip McGovern of delegates that he had already won in the California primary. But the ramifications were similar in 1972 to what they likely would be now – winning the credentials fight would mean capturing the nomination.

McGovern had won California’s winner-take-all primary June 6 by a margin of 5 percentage points, 44 to Hubert Humphrey’s 39 percent, and with it all of the state’s 271 delegates. The large delegate haul put McGovern on the cusp of nailing down the nomination. That is, if he kept the California delegates.

At the party’s credentials committee meeting later that month in Washington, D.C., the anti-McGovern forces unveiled a challenge to the California result, arguing that it violated the party’s new ban on unit-rule voting as well as the spirit if not the letter of the reformers’ embrace of proportionality. They argued that McGovern’s 44 percent share of the primary vote entitled him to only 120 of the 271 California delegates.

Given that California members of the credentials committee were not allowed to vote on the challenge, the anti-McGovern side was able to prevail by a margin of six votes (72 to 66). In an instant, McGovern was stripped of 151 delegates, his momentum stalled, and his nomination thrown into doubt.

Figure 1. A Chronology of the Last Great Credentials Fight: the California Challenge of 1972

In closely fought presidential nominating campaigns, credentials contests on delegate seating have been a time-honored way for candidates to make a final, often decisive bid for the nomination. A generation has gone by since there was such a “make or break” end game at a national convention. The year was 1972, the challenge was within the Democratic Party, and it was over the legitimacy of California’s winner-take-all primary, which Democrat George McGovern had won. With the full complement of California delegates, McGovern was en route to the nomination. Without it, he very well could have been stopped by a coalition of rivals that included Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, George Wallace, as well as elements of organized labor.

Below is a brief chronology of the 1972 California challenge, which from start to finish was truncated into barely a month’s time.

  • June 6 – George McGovern defeats Hubert Humphrey in the winner-take-all California Democratic primary, 44 percent to Humphrey’s 39 percent. In the process, McGovern wins all of the state’s 271 delegates.

  • June 29 – The convention credentials committee, meeting in Washington, D.C., votes 72-to-66 to strip McGovern of all but 120 of his California delegates. “Stop McGovern” forces argue that winner-take-all violates the Democrats’ new ban on the unit rule, as well as the spirit if the not the letter of new reform rules favoring proportionality in delegate selection. The McGovern campaign argues fairness–that the rules of the game should not be changed after the event has taken place.

  • July 5 – The McGovern campaign launches a legal challenge against the decision that quickly makes its way through the judicial system. McGovern wins at the appeals level but the decision is overturned by the Supreme Court, which rules that the courts should not involve themselves in a “political” matter.

  • July 9 – Convention chair Larry O’Brien (also the chairman of the Democratic National Committee) issues a list of parliamentary guidelines that he will use in officiating credentials challenges. His key decisions tend to favor the McGovern campaign.

  • July 10 – Opening night of the convention: McGovern forces win the California challenge, 1,618.28 to 1,238.22. In the process, he wins back the 151 delegates that had been stripped by the credentials committee, clearing the way for his nomination two nights later.

McGovern responded first with anger, calling the challenge a “negative, spiteful movement that subverts the democratic process” carried out by “a bunch of old established politicians” involved in an “illegitimate power play.”

His campaign followed with a legal challenge to enjoin the Democratic Party from unseating McGovern’s California delegates. With time of the essence, the case quickly worked its way to the Supreme Court. There, however, the justices took a “Pontius Pilate” approach, arguing that the courts should not involve themselves in “political” matters.

That left the McGovern campaign with one option–fighting it out on the convention floor. On July 9, the day before the convention was to open, Democratic National Committee Chairman Larry O’Brien (who would also chair the convention) issued a series of parliamentary guidelines that were basically favorable to McGovern.

His 120 unchallenged California delegates could vote on the challenge.

Only a constitutional majority of 1,433 votes (based on the number actually eligible to vote on the challenge) would be required to win, rather than an absolute majority of 1,509 (based on the size of the full convention).

A challenge to these rulings would only be permissible if there were an actual controversy, which would happen if the vote fell in a “window” between a constitutional and absolute majority.

So far, so good for the McGovern camp, but they were still nervous. “Two years of work would come down to one vote,” remarked Gary Hart, McGovern’s campaign director. “All of the chips would be riding on that one dice-roll.”

Actually, it turned out to be two dice-rolls. Before the vote on California, there was to be consideration of a challenge brought by women’s groups to the gender composition of the South Carolina delegation. Women wanted the male-dominated delegation divided evenly between the sexes.

McGovern had supported their position, but as it came time for the vote, it was apparent that the outcome could fall within the “window” that the McGovern forces wanted to avoid. On the South Carolina roll call, they began “dumping” votes so that the final tally for the women’s position fell below the number necessary to trigger a parliamentary challenge. The maneuver worked, keeping the McGovern campaign well positioned to win the California challenge, which they did by a vote of 1,618.28 to 1,238.22.

Two nights later, McGovern was nominated. But the credentials fight had set the tone for the convention that did the South Dakota senator no good.

Debates were long, roll-call votes were frequent, and sessions routinely turned into all-nighters. On the final night of the convention, McGovern did not begin his acceptance speech until nearly 3 o’clock in the morning, when, as one wag remarked, it was prime time only in Guam.

No such chaotic convention has been held since 1972. Nominations have come to be decided in the primaries, with party leaders conducting their national conventions as a coronation with a “made for TV” veneer. Their motto essentially has been: the less friction the better.

With that in mind, many in the Democratic Party are hoping there will be no need for a credentials fight this summer over Florida and Michigan. As the California challenge of 1972 showed, any high-stakes credentials contest can be brutal and unpredictable, because it’s a fight for political survival.

In his book, The Making of the President 1972, Theodore White quoted an expert on the matter, Larry O’Brien, as to why this is: “Everyone can agree on rhetoric and words when you get to a thing like the platform,” O’Brien said. “But when you’re talking about credentials–credentials mean cold-stiff votes, and that’s real power.”

Figure 2. 2008 Democratic Credentials Committee Membership

The credentials committee is one of three associated with the Democratic convention, empowered to resolve disputes concerning the recognition and seating of delegates to the convention. The other two committees govern the rules and platform. According to the call to the 2008 Democratic convention, each committee will have 186 members casting 183 votes, with the territories allocated a quarter vote each. Each state’s representation is proportionate to the size of its delegation, a change from a generation ago when each state was allocated an equal number of committee members. The old system would have clearly advantaged Barack Obama this year, since he has won the most states. As it is, Obama and Hillary Clinton will likely have representation that is roughly equal on the various committees, with an add-on group of 25 party and elected officials potentially acting as a balance of power. Twenty (20) percent of members are needed to file a minority report, which sends a committee judgment to the convention floor for a final vote.

State Members Primary/Caucus Winner State Members Primary/Caucus Winner
Alabama 2 Obama Nevada 1 Clinton
Alaska 1 Obama New Hampshire 1 Clinton
Arizona 2 Clinton New Jersey 5 Clinton
Arkansas 1 Clinton New Mexico 1 Clinton
California 17 Clinton New York 11 Clinton
Colorado 2 Obama North Carolina 4 yet to vote
Connecticut 2 Obama North Dakota 1 Obama
Delaware 1 Obama Ohio 7 Clinton
District of Columbia 1 Obama Oklahoma 2 Clinton
Florida (8) Oregon 2 yet to vote
Georgia 4 Obama Pennsylvania 7 yet to vote
Hawaii 1 Obama Puerto Rico 2 yet to vote
Idaho 1 Obama Rhode Island 1 Clinton
Illinois 7 Obama South Carolina 2 Obama
Indiana 3 yet to vote South Dakota 1 yet to vote
Iowa 2 Obama Tennessee 3 Clinton
Kansas 1 Obama Texas 9 Clinton/Obama
Kentucky 2 yet to vote Utah 1 Obama
Louisiana 2 Obama Vermont 1 Obama
Maine 1 Obama Virginia 4 Obama
Maryland 3 Obama Washington 3 Obama
Massachusetts 4 Clinton West Virginia 1 yet to vote
Michigan (6) Wisconsin 3 Obama
Minnesota 3 Obama Wyoming 1 Obama
Mississippi 1 Obama Territories 1 yet to vote (Guam)
Missouri 3 Obama Party & Elected officials 25
Montana 1 yet to vote
Nebraska 1 Obama TOTAL 183

Note: Each territory (American Samoa, Democrats Abroad, Guam and the Virgin Islands) will have one member each on the credentials committee casting one-quarter vote each. In Texas, Clinton won the primary while Obama won the caucuses.

Source: Call for the 2008 Democratic National Convention (adopted Feb. 2, 2007).