Superdelegate Philosophy 101

Superdelegate Philosophy 101

Superdelegate Philosophy 101

A campaign blog.
Feb. 11 2008 2:54 PM

Superdelegate Philosophy 101

It feels as if every five minutes there’s a new delegate debate. Should Florida's and Michigan’s delegates be seated? Should we count superdelegates in our total tallies? What about nonbinding caucus delegates? Add a new kerfuffle to the mix: How should superdelegates vote?

I know it’s hard to believe, but Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama disagree on this issue. (You get the sense that if Obama said he liked oranges, Hillary would release a statement lauding apples for their superior color, crispness and vitamin content.) We thus see two superdelegate philosophies emerging:

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The first school of thought says that superdelegates should support whoever wins more pledged delegates. Democratic strategist and delegate guru Tad Devine argued this point in his Sunday New York Times op-ed , in which he called on superdelegates to stop endorsing and wait to see whom the American people choose. Obama said he also believes that "if we end up with the most states and the most pledged delegates from the most voters in the country, that it would be problematic for the political insiders to overturn the judgment of the voters."

The other school of thought says that superdelegates should decide for themselves which candidate they like better. Hillary Clinton articulated this philosophy over the weekend: "Superdelegates are, by design, supposed to exercise independent judgment." Of course, "independent judgment" can be influenced with phone calls, visits, and dinners with friends who also happen to be supporters. But it’s true that the superdelegate system is meant to give party officials a disproportionate say in choosing their nominee.

What’s amazing here—but hardly shocking—is how conveniently the candidates’ philosophies align with their political needs. Obama is expected to emerge ahead in the delegate count after the "Potomac primary" on Tuesday, so naturally he wants superdelegates to follow the voters' lead. Hillary, meanwhile, prefers to maximize her longtime connections to the Democratic establishment. In this situation, Obama is taking the side of democracy, while Clinton is arguing to uphold the party rules.

Notice that this is an inversion of the fight over Florida and Michigan. In that flap, Hillary is the one making paeans to democracy, arguing that the DNC must seat delegates from those two states, both of which she won. Meanwhile, Obama claims that we need to play by the rules of the DNC, which stripped the states of their delegates. Clinton stands up for democracy when it helps her and backs down when it doesn’t. Obama likewise defers to the rule book when it serves him and throws it out the window when democracy seems more useful.  

This isn’t to cast a pox on both houses. Obama’s deference to the DNC rules in Florida and Michigan isn’t purely self-serving—it’s also fair, given that Hillary was the only viable candidate on the Michigan ballot. Nor is it novel for politicians to bend their ideals to suit their needs. But in the case of superdelegates, it seems obvious that one path—having superdelegates take the electorate’s cue—is the democratic one.

Of course, you could fill a book cataloging the undemocratic aspects of the nomination contests. ( Caucuses, caucuses, and caucuses , to name three.) But there’s only so much griping you can do; political parties reserve the right to choose their own nominees. If you don’t like it, you can go start your own party. Plus, the nominating process is too complicated to say that superdelegates will vote either for the pledged delegate winner or for their personal preference. Back in 1984, superdelegates swung toward Walter Mondale. According to Tad Devine, it was because Mondale won 40 more pledged delegates than his opponent, Gary Hart. If you ask Hart, it’s because Mondale was the establishment figure with more clout among party leaders. Even after the convention this August, observers may disagree on what happened.

The real nightmare scenario, though, is if one candidate wins the popular vote and the other wins more delegates. In that case, it won’t be democracy vs. party power. It will be one definition of democracy versus another, with superdelegates more powerful than ever. As Ted Olson speculates , it would be Bush v. Gore all over again, only this time it would rupture the party instead of the country. In that case, no matter what your philosophy, the Democrats are screwed.