Forty years ago, the Democratic party was split between Hubert Humphrey and Bobby Kennedy, as they tried to find a presidential challenger to Richard Nixon. The parallels between 1968 and 2008 are well- documented and genuine. However, the '68 nominating contest was unlike 2008's in a most important respect. Back then, will of the Democratic masses mattered less in choosing a candidate than did the judgment and alliances of a few well-positioned elites within the party, who presided over smoke- filled rooms and convention floor fights before tabbing a winner.
One such man was Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was fiercly anti- Kennedy, and hosted the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Of course, Kennedy never made it to that convention, but many of his followers did, protesting the war, and the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations outside until Daley used harsh, violent means to suppress them.
It was under that shadow that the McGovern Commission was born, charged to redo the nominating process, and put the power in the people's hands. That commission created the caucus process we know today. The organizers knew not as many people would participate in a caucus as pull a lever in a primary, but they wanted to return to a time of more active democracy. It was about the kind of participation.
One of the organizers of the '72 commission was a young man named Harold Ickes, who fought for the changes as a way to enfranchise blacks, Hispanics, women and regular folks in general. Ickes would go on to become a party bigwig and run Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign. The Huffington Post's Tom Edsall has a great article on how Obama would come to benefit immensely from these changes, and how Clinton would be undone by, as much as anything, a lack of appreciation for the system Ickes helped devise so long ago.
Edsall points out some crazy numbers that make one question the wisdom the current system, which is split between caucuses and primaries and always apportions votes according to percentage received:
"As of June 2, according to RealClearPolitics, Obama had a 157 delegate vote lead over Clinton, 2072 to 1915.
In the 14 states that picked some or all of their delegates through caucus systems this year, Obama won 400 delegates to Clinton's 193, a 207 delegate advantage that more than accounts for his overall delegate lead.
An analysis (pdf) published on TalkLeft found that total Democratic voter participation in the caucus states amounted to 1.1 million people, compared to the 32.4 million voters in Democratic primaries, a ratio of 30 to one. Caucus participants made up 3.2 percent of the total of 33.5 million primary voters and caucus goers combined.
In contrast to the relatively close results in most primary states, Obama won many of the caucus states by huge margins, often substantially exceeding 60 percent. As a consequence, he piled up large numbers of delegates in the relatively low turnout contests.
The TalkLeft analysis noted that Clinton won 11 more delegates than Obama in the New Jersey primary, which she won by 112,128 votes, while Obama won 12 more delegates than Clinton in the Idaho caucuses which he won by 13,225 votes. Similarly, Clinton netted 12 delegates by winning the Pennsylvania primary by 214,115 votes, while Obama came out ahead by 14 delegates by winning the Kansas caucuses by 17,710 votes."