by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Molly Ivins made famous the old political saying, “You got to dance with them what brung you,” in her 1998 book by the same name, referring to how officeholders often “owe” various interest groups and people who helped them get elected. But the same could be said about the methods that political parties use for picking candidates – all candidates within a political party have to dance to the rhythm set by their party’s selection system. And once the music starts, it’s too late to change songs.

Consider the Republican side, where the candidate with the most votes in a state primary or caucus typically gets all of that state’s delegates. The effect of the “winner takes all” approach is to quickly narrow the field to a couple of candidates and then make a quick decision amongst those who remain.

In a winner-take-all primary, a candidate who gets 40 percent of the popular vote in most states might find that he or she only has a few or no delegates come time for the Republican National Convention. This year, this system has worked as intended for the Republicans, narrowing the field quickly and making John McCain the nominee in waiting, since no other candidate can possibly gain enough delegates to beat him. This should be the end of the nominating process, but unfortunately McCain has one opponent who not only doesn’t believe in evolution but also seems to not believe in math either: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Kidding aside, I imagine Huckabee is well aware of the reality of the situation, including the fact that McCain has only lukewarm support from those who consider themselves “true conservatives” and it is therefore unlikely that McCain will win the White House come November. Rather, I imagine Huckabee remembers how Ronald Reagan hung on to his fight for the 1976 Republican nomination and the positive effect that had on his chances in 1980. In 1976, it was clear to many that Reagan would lose to President Gerald Ford at the Republican convention held in Kansas City. Reagan’s campaign had run out of money and lacked the support of the party establishment. But Reagan pressed on, determined to not let down his supporters by surrendering to the inevitable.

As such, he came very close to winning and was able to deliver a convention speech that for many conservatives overshadowed Ford’s acceptance speech. Reagan built a lasting bond with his supporters in ’76 that he used to gain the nomination in 1980. So, I imagine that Huckabee will continue campaigning in primaries, on the Colbert Report and at Columbia College next month in his race to secure the 2012 nomination despite the harm it will cause to McCain’s chances in November.

On the Democratic side, most caucuses and primaries award delegates in proportion to the vote percentages. Because the proportional allocation of delegates doesn’t allow early winners to gain huge leads, it lets candidates with large popular appeal gain momentum and overtake the early leaders. In such proportional systems, the winner of the contest and the winner of the popular vote should be the same person. However, some 25 years ago, the Democratic Party decided it didn’t want to leave the choice of a nominee solely up to the Democratic voters and allocated 20 percent of the delegate seats to so-called “super delegates,” officeholders and party insiders who would theoretically be better able to pick a winning candidate.

Ever since, the votes of super delegates have been a factor in choosing the nominee, but never really the deciding factor. Depending on how the next month goes, 2008 might be the year that super delegates decide the nominee. You’d think all the super delegates would be glad their day has come and would be ready to cast their votes regardless of popular sentiment. Instead, most super delegates seem to be cringing at the idea of determining the Democratic nominee in 2008. Wisconsin super delegate Gov. James Doyle said on Fox News Sunday, “It would be an absolute disaster for the Democratic Party for the super delegates to undo the will of the people.”

But isn’t that exactly why the super delegates were created in the first place? To be able to undo the will of the democratic voters? Doyle and others – including the Democracy for America and groups – have called for super delegates to vote in line with the popular vote. This provides an easy out for the super delegates who are used to having a good time at the convention instead of making tough choices. But frankly, the music has already started, and it is too late to get out of the dance now. We’ll just have to see what it brings.