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Did the Limbaugh Effect Also Flip Michigan?

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With Hillary Clinton rejecting the compromise that Michigan Democratic leaders just crafted, the Democratic Rules Committee has a dilemma. Clinton keeps demanding that Michigan's delegates be apportioned according to the January 15 vote, where she was the sole major candidate on the Democratic ballot. But there's another twist that no one has raised--the impact of a Rush Limbaugh-style crossover on the Michigan vote. Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" quite likely gave Clinton Indiana, provided much of her 4-point Texas margin, buttressed her Ohio win, and decreased Obama's margin in Mississippi. But no one talks about the impact of crossovers on Clinton's self-proclaimed Michigan victory, without which her unopposed candidacy would still have gotten less than 50 percent.

Of course the entire Michigan vote was a charade. Former Michigan Senator Donald Riegle compared it to Soviet elections: "a sham" she, Bill, and her supporters "rigged to give the nation the impression that she's the leading candidate in Michigan." In an October 2007 New Hampshire Public Radio interview that every delegate should hear, Clinton justified her staying on the Michigan ballot by explaining, "this election they're having is not going to count for anything." As Michigan Public Radio commentator Jack Lessenberry pointed out, fewer than 600,000 voted in the state's Democratic primary, compared to 867,000 Republican votes (and 2.5 million votes for John Kerry in 2004). So Michigan and Florida are among just a handful of states where Republican turnout exceeded that of the Democrats in this year's primaries. The vast bulk of Michigan Democrats stayed home, with way fewer voting than in far smaller states.

All this so profoundly taints the Michigan primary result that the only reasonable solution is to split the state's delegates down the middle. But another factor makes the taint still worse--the 60,000 Democrats who crossed over to vote Republican, based on their 7 percent share of the Republican vote. (In comparison, in South Carolina's contested primary, 11 days later, just 2% of the Republican voters were Democrats. Add in the vote for "uncommitted," and for Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, and Chris Dodd (who'd already dropped out), plus the 27,000 votes that Lori Hansen Riegle (Senator Riegle's wife), says were discarded because of write-ins, and the non-Clinton total climbs to 353,686, or 25,000 more than Hillary's 328,151.

Michigan Democrats who felt the vote was meaningless were in fact encouraged to cross over. Since everyone (including Clinton) said the results wouldn't count, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsis suggested Michigan Democrats vote for Mitt Romney to prolong the Republican race, keep the Republican candidates at each others' throats, and perhaps help nominate the presumably less-electable Mitt Romney. In other words, pretty much what Rush Limbaugh and his allies ended up doing, except that unlike Indiana and Ohio, Michigan had no laws even theoretically prohibiting such an action. No one thought Clinton would have the chutzpah to retroactively claim a Soviet-style victory. Other progressive bloggers picked up on the idea as well. I also heard it discussed on my local Air America affiliate. These strategic voters, whether inspired by the blogs or self-initiated, combined with other Democrats who simply figured McCain was less fundamentalist than Huckabee and had more substance than Romney's empty-suit puffery, so would still be a better choice for America if the Democratic candidate lost. Had all of them stayed in the Democratic primary and voted against Hillary, it would have tipped her to 48 percent.

Kos and his DailyKos site do valuable work, and I suspect Limbaugh would have launched his campaign without the precedent. But in both cases, Clinton benefited. As soon as McCain had clinched the nomination, Limbaugh and allies like Laura Ingraham began encouraging Republicans to further an increasingly nasty Democratic fight. Obama had been gaining legitimate support from Republicans simply inspired by his message, sick of Bush, and therefore open to changing. A conservative Mormon accounting professor me saying "Paul, you aren't going to believe this. Obama is way too liberal for me, but I'm going to vote for him because I think he has integrity." Post-Limbaugh, those who switched included a substantial number of Republicans trying to disrupt the Democratic primary. As the Boston Globe reported, "In Ohio and Texas on March 4, Republicans comprised 9 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, more than twice the average GOP share of the turnout in the earlier contests where exit polling was conducted. Clinton ran about even with Obama among Republicans in both states, a far more favorable showing among GOP voters than in the early races." A Wall Street Journal story found similar results. Twelve percent of Mississippi's Democratic primary voters were Republicans, breaking three to one for Clinton, but 31% of that group said she wasn't honest and trustworthy, which hardly suggested they'd be voting for her come November. In Indiana, Huffington Post staff reporter Sam Stein points out that seven percent of those who voted for Clinton in the primary say they wouldn't vote for her in November. But without those voters, she wouldn't have had her two-percentage-point victory.

This resonates with my experience. I've gotten emails from people throughout these states who've described coworkers, neighbors, or friends who they witnessed bragging or laughing about being part of Rush's crossover legions. I've read many similar first-person accounts on various blogs. Given the size of Limbaugh's audience and that of his allies in this effort, it seems perfectly conceivable that he shifted 2-3 percent of the vote in each of the states that he targeted. Those jumping on the Daily Kos campaign in Michigan had a far smaller megaphone, but operated under similar strategic assumptions. They were hardly Hillary supporters, or they'd have voted for her, but the numbers suggest their votes made a difference, helping give her the "victory" she now clings to.

Clinton's negligible hopes require both massive superdelegate shifts and seating both Michigan and Florida according to her fantasy projections, where Obama gets zero Michigan delegates because he wasn't on the ballot, and where Obama loses in a Florida vote he never had a chance to contest. The Rules Committee decision-makers would do well to remember the conscious interventions of those who tried to game the primary system. In the case of Michigan, they hardly intended to benefit Hillary, but without their switch, she wouldn't have been able to make even the hollow claims on which she now rests so much of her last-stand campaign.

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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)
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