APS News

Inside the Beltway

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

“How do you manage to do it?” a colleague asked me over coffee at the recent DAMOP meeting in Calgary.

“Do what?” I answered, my physicist’s ego reflexively aroused.

“Figure out how to get things done in Washington–physicists aren’t cut out for politics. And you seem to be pretty good at it.”

It was not the first time I had to confront the question. Here’s my answer.

Washington really is like physics: problem solving, boundary conditions and laws. It’s just that the laws aren’t Newton’s, Ampere’s or Boyle’s. But laws, nonetheless, or rules, more appropriately. Once you understand them, you can be a winner.

Members of Congress are pretty smart, on average. And so are the pundits who put food–expensive, elegant food, at that–on the table pontificating about them at their expense. But for the most part, politicians and pundits get their smarts from experience and cultured intuition.

It works extraordinarily well, in most cases. But sometimes lack of analytical training trips them up.

Don’t expect me to deliver succulent morsels of politicians’ missteps. I’m not about to squander any political good will I’ve accumulated in the dozen years I’ve been in Washington by sticking my stiletto into our fine public servants. But pundits are another matter.

Case in point: the presidential primaries. With sixteen months to go before the 2008 elections and primary fatigue already cutting into Ambien and Lunesta’s market share, how many times have columnists and talking heads claimed that both parties will choose their candidates by February 5, 2008!

Super Tuesday, as it used to be called, is now known as Power Ball Tuesday, or, in the high-tech ad lingo, Giga Tuesday. It’s the day on which both parties will select about forty percent of their delegates.

Political “wisdom” holds that to compete effectively on that quasi-national primary day, candidates will have to amass hundreds of millions of dollars. Otherwise, they will be out of the running. With the field whittled to just two or three, pundits say, someone will emerge with enough delegates to lock up the nomination.

Is that so? Let’s do the analysis.  For brevity, I’m going to focus on the Democrats.

First the boundary conditions: Democrats, who currently have 8 announced candidates, will send 5110 delegates to their August 2008 convention in Denver. Of those, 314 will be “super-delegates”–governors, Senate and House members and non-voting congressional representatives of the District of Columbia and the territories. The selection process will begin on January 14 with the Iowa caucuses and end on June 3 with primaries in Montana and South Dakota. By February 5, voters will have chosen 2401 delegates.

Now the rules: Any candidate receiving 15 percent of the vote in any caucus or primary will receive a proportional share of the delegates elected. Typically, delegates will be bound to vote for the candidate they have endorsed on the first convention ballot. All “super-delegates” will remain officially uncommitted, although they may endorse candidates at any time. Primary candidates who choose public matching funds must limit their spending to slightly less than $45 million.

Finally, the analysis: With the primary schedule so compressed and about $22 million in public matching funds available to any candidate, what are the odds that any of them will drop out before February 5? With delegates allocated proportionately, even if only Clinton, Edwards and Obama compete effectively, what are the odds that one of them emerges from Giga Tuesday with enough delegates to have the nomination locked up?  And, finally–forget about February 5–what are the odds that anyone will have a majority of the 4,081 delegates chosen by April 1?

If you answered slim, slim and slim, you’re on the right track, which leads me to my conclusion: We might not know the nominee until after the convention. And that means if you want to get an issue–for example, science–on the presidential agenda, you have to hit virtually every candidate’s primary campaign starting now.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff