Emma Roller, APRIL 12, 2016, New York Times
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The paradox of a strong system of superdelegates in the 2016 primary season
is that a significant section of the Democratic Party, which has them, wishes it
didn’t, while the leadership of the Republican Party, which doesn’t have them,
may well wish it did.
Left-wing Democrats have long argued that their party’s system of
superdelegates is unfair because it gives too much weight to ruling elites,
disenfranchising ordinary voters. Hillary Clinton’s lead in the delegate count
— even as her rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, racks up win after win in state
primaries and caucuses — has only sharpened the debate.
At the same time, with the failure of any establishment candidate to stop
the populist insurgency of Donald J. Trump, the Republican Party also seems
saddled with rules it doesn’t like. In its case, though, party leaders may wish
they had something more like the Democratic approach.
Where the two parties’ systems are similar is the basic delegate
mechanism: For both Republicans and Democrats, party members run in their
home state to become “pledged” delegates at the party’s national convention.
Pledged delegates are bound by the parties’ rules to vote for the winner in their
state’s primary contest (or caucus).
Superdelegates are pre-eminently a Democratic institution: a group of
more than 700 elected officials and senior party officers who are automatically
entered into the delegation by virtue of their position. They account for about
15 percent of the convention’s total votes. Crucially, these superdelegates are
“unpledged” or “unbound,” meaning they can change their mind about which
candidate they will vote for at the Democratic National Convention in July. In
other words, primary voters have no direct bearing on whom superdelegates
choose to support. (Currently, of the 2,383 delegates needed to secure the
Democratic nomination, Mrs. Clinton has 1,756, of which 469 are
superdelegates, to Mr. Sanders’s total of 1,037, which includes 31
Robert Shrum, a veteran Democratic consultant and a politics professor at
the University of Southern California, said superdelegates are “cushy
patronage for party officials and past political officeholders.”
“They’re fundamentally undemocratic,” he said. “They shouldn’t exist, and
it would be wonderful if we got rid of them. Superdelegates are a poison pill
that the Democratic Party has never swallowed, in the sense that they have
never determined a nominee against the will of the voters.”
The story starts in 1968, when the Democratic Party made a concerted effort to
shift power over the nomination process from party bosses to primary voters.
Four years later, that strategy appeared to backfire when the party nominated
Senator George S. McGovern, an antiwar candidate, who proceeded to lose 49
states to President Richard M. Nixon. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won as another
outsider candidate, only to lose the White House after a single term to Ronald
Reagan in 1980’s 44-state landslide.
“The system as it was constructed at the time — with no superdelegates —
allowed for insurgent candidates to gather momentum early and win the
nomination,” said Joshua Putnam, a political scientist at the University of
Georgia. “But those insurgent types of candidates were not necessarily well
suited for the general election.”
That’s why, in 1981, the Democratic Party asked James B. Hunt, the
governor of North Carolina, to lead an inquiry to figure out how the party
could regain some control over the nominating process. In 1982, the Hunt
Commission proposed the superdelegates system as an institutional backstop
against maverick candidates.
The Hunt system is still largely in place today, despite subsequent
attempts to dismantle it. In 2009, after a bruising primary between then
Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in which an extremely tight and
drawn-out contest was decided only when a surge of superdelegate
endorsements tipped the balance in Mr. Obama’s favor, the Democratic
National Committee convened a new group to look at the issue. But in talks
with committee leaders, who are granted automatic superdelegate status
under the current system, the reformers’ efforts ran into a brick wall.
The Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who served on both the 1982 and
2009 commissions, has opposed the idea of superdelegates since its inception.
He lobbied to get rid of at least some superdelegates, starting with members of
the national committee.
“Of course, that’s the Catch-22,” he said. “Whatever you do has to be
approved by the D.N.C., who obviously are not very enthusiastic about voting
away their automatic delegate status.”
On the surface, getting rid of superdelegates seems an easy fix to make the
Democratic primary more, well, democratic. But it’s not that simple. The party
can’t simply get rid of superdelegates by dispensing with the title: The elites
would simply run to become delegates from their states, and might end up
making the convention less representative of the party’s more diverse grass
roots. These officials “would have to run for a delegate slot by competing
against their own constituents,” Mr. Carrick said. There are those who argue
that including many elected officials actually ensures diversity and enhances
the democracy of the process.
The Republican Party already has some superdelegates, made up of three
members from each state’s national party committee. However, they comprise
only 7 percent of the total delegation, and are required to cast their ballots for
the candidate who won their state’s primary or caucus. The rules get more
complicated, naturally, in the case of a brokered convention.
The law of unintended consequences also applies to any reform. Between
2012 and 2016, the Republican National Committee made several rule changes
that were meant to consolidate the Republican primary field more quickly and
produce a competitive nominee. The party moved its convention earlier, made
more primaries winner take all and mandated that superdelegates must vote
for whichever candidate won their home state’s contest. Yet the new rules have
merely smoothed Mr. Trump’s path to the nomination, while more moderate
or establishment candidates have been shut out.
“The Trump thing is like a hostile takeover of one of the national political
parties,” Mr. Carrick said. He predicts that party officials will have to take “a
hard look at how they can get more control over the process.”
Dan Schnur worked on Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential
campaign and is now the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at
the University of Southern California. The very concept of superdelegates goes
against the party’s federalist, bottom-up approach to politics, but after this
cycle, traditional Republicans could be “very excited about the concept of
superdelegates,” he said.
But there’s a big obstacle. “The only way it could possibly happen is for a
Republican president elected with strong grass-roots conservative support to
find a way to pitch it,” he said. “But it’s difficult to see any current elected
Republican or party official who’d have the clout or the nerve to try it.”
Other Republican veterans remain uneasy at the prospect of a system of
“I believe the nominee should be chosen by delegates selected in each
state — not some superdelegate who is only a delegate because of his or her
status,” the former presidential candidate Bob Dole said in an email.
Democratic Party leaders will also be unlikely to revise their system. As
Mr. Putnam, the political scientist from the University of Georgia, said: “Their
goal is not democracy, per se. It’s a system that produces a candidate who can
win a general election. Sometimes those things don’t align perfectly.”
While Mr. Sanders has made the idea of a “political revolution” central to
his campaign, he has been notably reticent about the outsize role that
superdelegates play in the nominating process. It’s not hard to figure out why:
His campaign still holds out hope that he can peel superdelegates away from
Mrs. Clinton as long as he keeps winning states.
“Sanders really can’t be attacking the superdelegates as long as he still
hopes to win their support,” Mr. Schnur said. “At the precise moment that he
determines that they’re not switching is when he goes on the attack.”
Emma Roller, a former reporter for National Journal, is a
contributing opinion writer.