CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS
Feb. 25, 2008 – Page 482

Leaping Voters In a Single Bound

They were supposed to be the voice of the Democratic Party’s insiders, free to participate in the party’s conventions without picking sides and to vote for the candidate they thought would have the best chance to win the White House. Now, the party’s “superdelegates” may be forced to become exactly what they were never supposed to be: a rubber stamp for the party’s voters.

In the increasingly likely scenario of a deadlocked convention in Denver this summer, with neither Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois nor Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York having the plurality of 2,025 delegates necessary to secure the nomination, the balance of nominating power will fall to the 795 superdelegates — chiefly elected officials and established party power brokers who retain the ability to shift their allegiances at the convention.

The superdelegate system is an oddly top-heavy and insulated nominating mechanism for a party identified through most of its history as the servant of the common citizen and the popular will. But that, in a sense, is the whole point. After a brief flirtation with direct democracy in the nominating process, party elders felt that the system wasn’t producing viable national candidates — and that there was no one better to remedy that problem than party elders themselves.

Now, however, the Democrats find themselves in a prospective bind. And critics suggest that it could produce the opposite outcome than the one the original architects of the superdelegate system intended: denying the nomination to a viable national candidate, in the person of Obama, and awarding it to Clinton — a candidate who might be less electable, but who nonetheless had sewn up enough support from the Democratic establishment to win a decisive edge in the superdelegate struggle.

After the 1968 nominating convention in Chicago infamously exploded in violent street confrontations over the elevation of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to the top of the ticket without a single primary victory, Democrats revisited the longstanding system of permitting on-site party leaders to designate nominees at their conventions.

Humphrey had never run in a single state primary — he entered the race after all the filing deadlines had passed — and he was also a strong supporter of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s unpopular escalation of the Vietnam War. That made it all the more urgent, as far as the party’s activist wing was concerned, to substitute the people’s will for the judgment of party insiders.

So, by the 1972 convention in Miami Beach, the Democrats, convening to nominate anti-war South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, extensively rewrote the nominating rules to dilute the influence of the party establishment. That change produced two immediate effects: It shifted the balance of power to ideological activists, and it gave party and elected officials little incentive to campaign for the party’s presidential nominee, having little or no direct stake in the decision.

And when McGovern campaigned in the general election, his inherent weaknesses as a candidate were magnified, in the party leadership’s view, by his failure to elicit strong stump support from traditional power brokers — and the voters they could help marshal to the polls.

But the Democrats stuck with the new rules through another cycle, when Jimmy Carter, another insurgent candidate, won the nomination and went on to defeat President Gerald R. Ford. Still, party insiders knew they had to pull the plug on the more direct style of nominating presidential candidates.

Indeed, the 1980 Democratic National Convention was host to a bitter rules fight, when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts argued that pledged delegates, in the interests of promoting the party’s general election fortunes, should be free to abandon Carter and support him for the nomination instead.

Kennedy lost that battle, but when Carter went down to defeat before a resurgent GOP led by Ronald Reagan, party leaders could see Kennedy’s broader point. They elected to revisit the nominating rules again — only this time with a lot less direct-democratic fervor.

So in 1982, a commission headed by then-North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. went back into the nominating rules to create a new category of uncommitted delegates to provide a role for members of Congress, governors and other party leaders. The superdelegate was born — with the clear mandate of restoring more nominating power to the top echelon of party leadership.

“We felt the party needed these public officials and party leaders,” Hunt recalls. “We needed these people to have a good convention, to select the best candidate to represent the party, to have a sense of ownership in the fall campaign, and to be part of things going forward.”

There were still fights, though — mainly over just how big a role superdelegates should play. Under Hunt’s original plan, superdelegates would make up 30 percent of the delegates to the 1984 convention. Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale supported the idea, believing the superdelegates would favor him in his White House run. But it ran into opposition from the allies of Kennedy, ironically enough, given his original support for the free-floating delegate plan in 1980. Kennedy was then expected to mount another presidential run, and his supporters feared that insiders would not support him, according to an account by Elaine Kamarck, an ex-adviser to former Vice President Al Gore who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the politics of presidential nominations.

Eventually, the Hunt Commission settled on a compromise in which superdelegates would make up 14 percent of the total. That proportion has gradually expanded over the years, and this year superdelegates will be about 20 percent of the total number of delegates at the Denver convention.

But the one issue that was never in doubt, Hunt says, is that superdelegates were supposed to be free to decide how to vote — not just rubber-stamp the results of the primaries and caucuses. “We fully expected them to use their discretion, or judgment,” said Hunt. “There certainly was never any attention to making them just automatically have to follow the results in their states.”

In practice, though, superdelegates have yet to reverse a clear decision by the voters — in part because conventions have grown less contentious over the past couple of decades. But their first appearance on the scene was an impressive show of strength. In 1984, in San Francisco, they furnished the difference in the hard-fought battle between Mondale and Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado.

Coming into the convention, Mondale had a clear lead in pledged delegates, but the two received roughly equal numbers of popular votes. And when the primaries ended in June, Mondale ended up just short of the delegates needed to win the nomination. So he made a round of phone calls to uncommitted superdelegates and won just enough to finish the job.

Some analysts now cite that episode as evidence that superdelegates don’t reverse the will of the people — they just provide the winning margin. Hart disagrees. Most of the superdelegates, he says, had already committed to Mondale before summer — indeed, most of them had sided with Mondale before the primaries even began.

“Between June and July, my wife and I personally called all of the superdelegates,” Hart recalls. “And over and over again, they would tell us, ‘I’m sorry, I wish I could vote for you, but I pledged to Mondale back in January.’ ”

Too Close for Comfort?

Like Mondale in 1984, Clinton has aggressively courted early pledges from the superdelegate contingent; but as she’s faltered in the primaries, their backing has looked less secure. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia famously wavered in his support for Clinton this month, when he spoke admiringly of the “movement” represented by Obama’s candidacy. His home-state colleague, Rep. David Scott, went a step further, renouncing his former Clinton affiliation and siding with Obama, who won Georgia by a commanding margin.

Should other Clinton-pledged delegates follow Lewis’ and Scott’s examples, the specter of a superdelegate-brokered convention could recede. Even this far into the primary season, it’s still too early to project; roughly half the Democratic superdelegates are listed as “uncommitted,” including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.

The candidates take predictably self-interested views of the superdelegates’ role. Obama argues that the candidate who wins the most votes and pledged delegates — which, should current trends hold, will probably be him — should get the nomination and that the outcome shouldn’t be overturned by “party insiders.” Clinton says the superdelegates are supposed to be free to vote as they choose.

But there is enough grass-roots pressure to side with Obama’s view — and enough anxiety about what might happen if that view is ignored — that many superdelegates are hoping either candidate will build enough of a lead that they can simply go with the winner.

“I don’t see a situation where the voters will go one way and the superdelegates will go another way,” said Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama, an Obama superdelegate. “That would be a grave mistake, and I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Looking for Fixes

One way to prevent that scenario in the future is to scrap the superdelegate system and replace it with something else — an approach endorsed recently by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, among others. Other lawmakers wouldn’t go that far, but say a crisis at the convention could force a rewrite to give superdelegates less influence.

“The whole idea of superdelegates smacks of a bygone era of smoke-filled rooms and horse trading,” said Kind, who has urged party Chairman Howard Dean to form a task force on the practice. It would be a “grave injustice,” he said, if the superdelegates decided the nomination in a way that contradicted the clear will of the voters.

Right now, calls for a new look at the superdelegate system don’t seem to have reached critical mass, and most lawmakers agree that it shouldn’t happen until after the election, in any case. But even then, there may be too much inertia in the system to make changes unless there’s a major fight at the convention. In 1984, Hart’s allies pushed to cut the number of superdelegates in future conventions. But state party chairmen resisted that, according to news accounts at the time. Instead, there are now more superdelegates than ever.

Other lawmakers say that still more fundamental nominating changes need to happen for a more responsive nominating system in the party to take hold. Some are troubled by the delegate allocation rules, which have allowed Clinton and Obama to split delegates evenly in some congressional districts where one of them had a clear lead. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, a Clinton superdelegate, says he might suggest rewriting the rules so no district has an even number of delegates.

Others are incensed by the DNC’s refusal to award Florida and Michigan any delegates after they held their primaries earlier than the party rules allowed. Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida, who would be a Clinton superdelegate if the state were allowed to participate, argues that the decision to hold the early primary was out of Democrats’ hands because Republicans control the legislature.

To avoid a similar bind four years from now, Brown would like the party to rewrite the rules to allow large states such as Florida to hold early primaries. All these procedural matters could become urgent front-page news in a deadlocked Denver convention — in which case, critics warn, the rules-tinkering Democratic National Committee hasn’t seen anything yet. “If this goes all the way to the convention, what you’re going to see is something you’ve never seen,” Hart said. “You’re going to see people turning in their badges.”

FOR FURTHER READING:

Humphrey nomination, 1968 Almanac, p. 1015; McGovern nomination and new rules, 1972 Almanac, p. 1045; Carter vs. Kennedy, 1980 Almanac, p. 85-B; Mondale vs. Hart, 1984 Almanac, p. 63-B.

Source: CQ Weekly
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