It's appropriate that our two major political parties are depicted as different animals. Forty days and forty nights out from the Iowa caucuses, the elephant and the donkey seem very different indeed. The Republicans have been split on attitudinal lines, between varying strains of conservatism and moderation.
And their delegate selection rules, based on their notion of fairness, have produced a clear and unambiguous outcome.
The Democrats, in contrast, have been split on demographic lines, between blacks and Latinos, old and young, upscale and downscale. The delegate selection rules, based on their notion of fairness, are heading the party not to a clear outcome but to a conflict in which the losing side is likely to feel profoundly aggrieved.
Winner-take-all is the Republican idea of fairness. The party seeks unity and uniformity, and doesn't encourage dissent. You know the rules in advance, and if you come out ahead you get the big prize. Thus, few Republicans thought it unfair when John McCain got all 58 delegates from Missouri on Super Tuesday after beating Mike Huckabee there 33 percent to 32 percent.
McCain has gotten only a minority of ALL primary votes and has fared poorly in caucuses, but he has clinched the party's nomination, however long radio talk show hosts carp and Mike Huckabee campaigns.
For the Democrats, the carping may just be starting. The Democrats' idea of fairness is proportional representation.
This makes sense for a party that typically has been made up of disparate minorities. The current rules came out of the 1988 contest, in which Jesse Jackson felt his voters were underrepresented. The problem is that the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has been so close that neither has built a significant lead -- or is likely to do so in the contests still to come.
The result is that the nomination could be determined by the 792 or so super-delegates -- public and party officials -- who were given convention votes in the early 1980s as a potential check on overenthusiastic and naive primary voters and caucus-goers.
The combination of scrupulous proportionality of elected delegates and the generous profusion of super-delegates sets the party on a collision course. Clinton currently trails Obama slightly in elected delegates and may do so even if she wins the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4. But she currently leads among super-delegates, and so it's possible that group could give her the nomination even while lagging in primaries and caucuses.