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Conventional Wisdom

By Jesse Gordon and Bill White
May 22, 2002

Massachusetts will soon experience the next step in our well-hidden exercise of democracy: the Democratic Convention on May 31 to June 1 at the Worcester Centrum. The Convention determines which Democratic candidates appear on the September 17th primary ballot. While most political conventions often express a foregone conclusion, this year’s Democratic Party Convention promises real drama in the Gubernatorial race.

Of the approximately 5,000 – 7,000 delegates attending the Convention, Cambridge will send 77 elected delegates and 49 alternate delegates (who only get to vote if the elected delegates fail to attend). Cambridge will also be represented by several dozen ex-officio delegates -- people who hold elective office, from our State Senators to elected officials of the Democratic State Committee who reside in Cambridge. Finally, the Democrats have several “add-on” delegate categories, including several minority groups, disabled, and Youth Delegates.

The goal of the Convention is twofold: to decide which candidates get on the September 17th primary ballot in contested races; and to endorse official candidates. A candidate needs 15% of the delegate votes to qualify for the Primary ballot; hence the magic number is somewhere between 750 and 1,050 delegates.

The Democratic Convention promises more excitement than the GOP because of several decisions in the gubernatorial race. The campaigns of the five candidates claim the following numbers of elected delegates from Cambridge:

  • Tom Birmingham 15
  • Steve Grossman 5 to 10 delegates (no official estimate)
  • Shannon O’Brien 15
  • Robert Reich 49
  • Warren Tolman 3 (Plus 20 second ballot commitments.)

Note that the five campaign estimates sum up to at least 87 votes, while in fact Cambridge only has 77 votes. There’s no penalty for delegates breaking their promises, except the censure of fellow delegates. Unlike most elections, there are no secret ballots at the Convention. Delegates declare their support for a candidate in public by a voice vote.

And this is when the excitement begins. Some delegates, moved by a strong convention speech, change their support at the last minute. Reich drew the lucky draw and gets to address the delegates last, immediately prior to their voting. Other delegates may change their support after being lobbied by a friend or local elected official. Some vote for one candidate on the first ballot, but for a different candidate on the second ballot. No one knows how many ballots will be required, but here are some likely strategies:

On the first ballot, if one candidate garners over 50% of the delegate votes, that candidate gets the endorsement, and the only other candidates who appear in the Primary are those who attain at least 15% on that first ballot. Early on, there was some talk among political operatives that Tom Birmingham might have the strength to get 50% on the first ballot. Now, the conventional wisdom points to Shannon O’Brien as the strongest candidate on the first ballot, but most believe she will fall short of the 50% threshold.

Here are the percentages we predict candidates will receive on the first ballot:

  • Shannon O’Brien 38%
  • Tom Birmingham 28%
  • Robert Reich 16%
  • Steve Grossman 11 %
  • Warren Tolman 7 %

If no candidate wins 50% on the first ballot, as we predict, then all heck breaks loose! Candidates are eligible for the Primary if they get 15% of the delegate vote on either the first ballot OR the second ballot. Will Reich, who would qualify based on the first ballot, claim victory and no longer compete for the endorsement of the Convention? If yes, will the Reich operation attempt to steer their delegates to another candidate on the second ballot? It might make sense for them to help O’Brien get her 50%, thus eliminating from the Primary two candidates that draw from the same base as Reich.... Grossman (Jewish voters) and Tolman (reform voters).

Will O’Brien, in an effort to get more men on the ticket and thus enhance her chances in September, release some of her delegates to Grossman and Tolman in order to help them get to 15%? And in return, will she then get commitments from Grossman and Tolman to vote for her on the third ballot, and give her the Convention’s endorsement?

What will Birmingham’s strategy be? Will he attempt to get to 50% by convincing Reich delegates to support Birmingham? Such a scenario may be of interest to Reich because such a move may freeze out Grossman and Tolman from the ballot. Also, given that O’Brien and Reich are neck and neck in the polls, Reich may prefer to have Birmingham win the Convention rather that O’Brien.

The O’Brien and Birmingham campaigns officially deny any strategy like described above -- only the voting records will tell. The Grossman campaign claims that “if the Convention were held today we’d have our 15%” and the Tolman campaign says “we feel strongly that we’ll get our 15% by the second ballot.” Their poll numbers are well below 15%, but their campaigns point out, correctly, that polling numbers of the voting population are irrelevant -- only the delegate votes matter at the Convention. Once again, only the voting records will tell.

Well, as you can imagine, the intrigue is intense, and the scenarios are endless. If you want to see how this all plays out, you can attend the Democratic Convention as an observer for $20, or you can watch the action on NECN, which will have extensive coverage of the drama.

The gubernatorial contest will occupy most of Saturday; the rest of the Convention will determine other statewide races. A rough schedule:

  • Friday 5 PM: Votes on uncontested races
  • Friday 7 PM: Speech by John Kerry, running uncontested for the Senate nomination. For political junkies, this speech is Kerry’s first shot at the 2004 presidential nomination.
  • Saturday 10 AM: Gubernatorial speeches, 20 minutes each for the five candidates.
  • Saturday 11:30 AM: Gubernatorial balloting.
  • Saturday 2:30 PM: Balloting for Treasurer and Lieutenant Governor


Bill White, who served as a Special Assistant to the President in the Clinton White House, is the Forum Director at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Jesse Gordon is the Technology Director for the Reich for Governor Committee, and will spend the Convention in the Reich Control Booth, an excellent vantage point for a political junkie. The Reich campaign does not endorse this editorial nor did the campaign sponsor its publication.

Bill White is the Forum Director for the Kennedy School of Government. Jesse Gordon is the Technology Director for the Reich for Governor Committee.


POST-SCRIPT: HOW WE DID IN OUR PREDICTIONS: (written after the convention and not published):

As predicted, O'Brien and Birmingham both did well on the first ballot -- well over 15% -- but neither captured the nomination. Reich just barely made the 15% cutoff on the first ballot, and then withdrew from consideration for the nomination. He recommended his delegates vote to nominate Birmingham, but not for the reasons we predicted. On the first ballot, the Grossman and Tolman camps realized that neither would make the 15% cutoff, so they made a deal: Tolman delegates would vote for Grossman on the first ballot, and vice-versa on the second ballot. That strategy worked, and both made the 15% cutoff. O'Brien got the nomination on the third ballot.

Many delegates complained about the length of time needed to conduct the balloting. This was largely due to a back-stage hearing on whether a large contingent of Russian Jewish immigrants were qualified to vote as Asian-American add-on delegates for Grossman. But delegates also complained that the conevntion was pointless in the end because 5 candidates came in, and 5 candidates ended up on the priamry ballot. The result was instituting a "Convention Reform Commission", on which Jesse Gordon served. The CRC, chaired by former Gov. Mike Dukakis and Rep. Jim McGovern, was intended to improve future conventions. Some results of that commission are discussed in an article entitled Opening the Oligarchy.

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