Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fighting the Last Battle

The Democrats are, perhaps, going to eliminate superdelegates from the presidential nominating process.  Here's the story from Josh Putnam, with further explanation here.  The basic idea is that superdelegates would still be at the convention, either as nonvoting delegates or, if they want, as pledged delegates, allocated along with regular pledged delegates.  Basically, after a state's primary, a superdelegate could choose to pledge to a candidate who was entitled to delegates,  and thereby take one of that candidate's pledged delegate spots.

I think the whole thing is a solution in search of a problem.  Here's the deal: in most cycles, the nomination process produces a winner by acclamation, and it doesn't really matter whether or not superdelegates exist or what they do. So what we're talking about is very close contests.

Now, it turns out that there are a few dirty little secrets about the nomination process.  First of all, while Democrats like to talk about control by voters, in fact primary voters are apt to follow opinion leaders within the party.  Why?  Because there's very little to distinguish same-party candidates, and so rank-and-file voters have little but reputation and image to choose from -- and reputation and image are heavily influenced by what trusted opinion leaders say.  That's why endorsements are so important within the process.  Therefore, it's silly to think of superdelegates as a violation of a principle of popular control of the nomination; in reality, what voters do is mostly a function of what party leaders want. (At the same time, I've argued that there's another effect in which party leaders react to what happens in the early primaries, so it's not true in my opinion that ordinary voters have no independent effect).

OK, another dirty little secret: the process, as it's evolved, is heavily dependent on winnowing to a single candidate.  The rules to deal with very close contests are untested, and if the 2008 case is any indication, the rules probably don't work very well.  The basic idea of winning shares of the nomination through proportional representation in primaries and caucuses is fine, but in case it doesn't produce a winner, the role of actual people -- pledged delegates, who are slated by the candidates and therefore have as their only qualification their intense fanatical devotion to the candidate -- is really not likely to work out very well.  Thus the political junkie fantasy of a deadlocked process leading to a brokered convention is a fantasy; the only "brokers" in such a process would be the candidates themselves, because the delegates are chosen to be candidate loyalists, not representatives of party interests or factions.

Given all of this, superdelegates play a useful role -- not in representing "the party" against "the people," but in potentially resolving near-tie contests by shifting to the narrow winner.  That was in fact tested in 2008, and it worked pretty smoothly.  Barack Obama's supporters turned against superdelegates because the early-declaring supers supported Hillary Clinton, but as Obama racked up wins in primaries and caucuses, the undeclared supers moved to Obama, and eventually supers originally pledged to Clinton switched,  Without the supers, Obama's margin would have stayed slim, and Clinton's supporters would have had an even larger incentive to fight it out to the convention.  The supers role, that is, turns out to be to ratify -- not to chose -- the winner.  It's a useful function.

Now, the reform proposal will have the opposite effect.  Most pledged delegates are, as I said, fanatically attached to their candidate (because that's the sole criterion for slating them).  Unless the final margin in a close contest is very, very close, there's no reason to hope that enough delegates can be turned to make a difference.  But pledged supers, the category the Dems are thinking of creating, would be different.  They would be much more susceptible to being swayed.  With pledged supers, close losers are going to be more likely to stick around to the bitter end.

You'll notice that I assume that the "pledge" part of pledged delegates isn't actually worth much.  I think that's correct: the convention is the ultimate arbiter of party rules, and should delegates want to free themselves from their pledges and they have a majority at the convention, I don't think anyone can stop them from doing so.  Although a bitter convention decided by disloyal delegates might wind up in the courts, and almost certainly, lawsuit or not, be a total disaster for the party's chances in November.

Superdelegates have been a useful part of the nomination process for twenty-five years.  They worked well, ultimately in Obama's favor, in 2008, the year in which they received their biggest test.  Democrats should ditch this part of the reform effort, and keep the current role of the supers.


  1. I'm not sure I agree that the superdelegates worked well this past cycle. I take your point that they help to tip the balance in favor of a marginal victor, but I'm not sure how that really does all that much. The point of the superdelegates, if I understand it correctly, was to act as a failsafe in case the rank and file voters made a really stupid decision. But I have a hard time imagining such a case, and even if it did occur, the supers showed last year that they're pretty spineless. They can be forgiven for that -- most of them are elected officials who don't want to piss off their most active partisan voters -- but I still don't see the point of having them serve in this role.

  2. Most of them are elected officials. The rest are party insiders like the folks on the Rules and Bylaws Committee who are going to have to sign off on this change to their position in this process. Everyone is talking today like this is a done deal. There are some supers on the RBC and they aren't necessarily going to be a rubber stamp on this change.

  3. Seth,

    The failsafe idea is really a post facto thing (as is my idea above). The original reasoning behind it was, mostly, just to give party leaders (elected leaders, and formal party officials, mostly) a way to show up at the convention. The problem was that the original McGovern-Fraser rules gave no path to the convention for party leaders unless they got slated for a candidate (and guessed the right candidate) before their state primary. So supers were a way of allowing them to go. The other part of it was that back then there was a sense that outsiders were dominating the convention, and there was an idea that the insiders should be brought back in. Of course, it turned out that having a bunch of supers didn't have any affect on the nomination, so that reason didn't pan out, although once everyone figured out the rules, the insiders wound up being influential without (necessarily) being delegates. See David Price, Bringing Back the Parties.

  4. One more point -- I do think having the supers around as a failsafe would be helpful in the event of a John Edwards type situation.


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