Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Did Democratic Superdelegates Write Their Own Epitaph?

That's a question I tweeted over the weekend, but would like to explore a bit more. The question finds its root in some of the comments Elaine Kamarck made at this weekend's Democratic Change Commission meeting (from ABCNews):

Touching on what may prove to be one of the more contentious issues considered by the DNC, one presenter, Democratic Party activist and Harvard University lecturer and former superdelegate Elaine Kamarck, suggested that it may be time to completely eliminate superdelegates since most of those party leaders clearly determined their role in 2008 to be one of ratifying the decision made by voters in primaries and caucuses.

"We can probably let go of the superdelegates," said Kamarck.

"Their deliberative role," she added, "has in fact been supplanted by a very very public process."

I hadn't really given this much thought before, but by following the will of the people (voting the way their constituents did), most superdelegates actually undermined their original purpose. The reason superdelegates came into being in the interim period between the 1980 and 1984 elections was to allow the party establishment an increased voice in the nomination process (something they saw as having diminished in the post-McGovern-Fraser reform era). Make no mistake, that is code for giving the party the opportunity to put a check on the decision of the people's choice. And no, that's not necessarily a bad thing. For the Democratic Party that was a strategic decision based on the prevailing conventional wisdom* of the time that primary voters are typically more extreme (or at least further to the left or right) than general election voters. It was a basic electability argument.

Regardless, superdelegates have basically served to ratify the choice of primary voters since 1984. But they operated in the shadows -- in virtual anonymity -- not triggering any controversy until their role appeared consequential to the outcome of the 2008 Democratic nomination. Their role never changed, though -- not the intended role, at least. Technically, superdelegates are/were still unpledged delegates. However, by very visibly coming out in favor of the candidates their constituents voted for in the primaries and caucuses, they (or most of the superdelegates) completely undermined their initial purpose.

And this was a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. There was no exit strategy where the superdelegate system was going to emerge unchanged. Either the superdelegates were going to vote with their constituency and risk countering their intended purpose or they were going to vote against their constituents and run the risk of ripping the party in two. [Yes, there are a series of gradations in between, but one of those narratives would have emerged as the dominant theme at some point.] Politically, they made the right move for many reasons. [Not dividing the party and their own re-election prospects would have damaged in the case of the office-holding superdelegates were chief among those reasons.] In the process, though, the role of the superdelegate has likely been rewritten.

The Hunt Commission initially called for superdelegates to comprise approximately 30% of total delegates, but that number was whittled down to 14% by the time the 1984 cycle rolled around. Ever since then, there has been what Democratic Change Commission member Suzi LeVine cleverly called a "superdelegate creep" with that percentage rising as time went on. By 2008 superdelegates made up about 20% of the total number of Democratic convention delegates.

Saying that superdelegates wrote their own epitaph with their actions in 2008 is probably a bit of an overstatement. Will they be eliminated? No, because the Democratic Change Commission membership is about one-third superdelegate and the group the DCC will make recommendations to -- the Rules and Bylaws Committee -- is made up of DNC members who were also superdelegates. They won't be eliminated, but their voice in the nomination process -- the voice of the party establishment superdelegates were created to protect -- will likely be significantly diminished for the 2012 cycle and beyond.

We'll find out a little bit more about how much when the Democratic Change Commission reconvenes in late August.

*This is still being debated in various ways within the political science discipline. Early books by Crotty and Jackson (Presidential Primaries and Nominations - 1985), Marshall (Presidential Primaries in a Reform Age - 1981), Lengle (Representation and Presidential Primaries: The Democratic Party in the Post-Reform Era - 1981), Polsby (Consequences of Party Reform - 1983) and more recent articles (highlighted by McCann 1995) all describe varying levels of differentiation between primary voters and (same party) general election voters while Norrander (1989) and Geer (1988), among others, offer evidence against the ideological extremism argument.

Recent Posts:
State of the Race: New Jersey (6/30/09)

The Best Inside Account of the First Democratic Change Commission Meeting

Future Democratic Change Commission Meetings


bikebali said...

It’s so nice site. We love to see more on this site. Keep on updating… MonkAreRee Bali ***

Robert said...

It is a nice site!

The superdelegates were a nice thought until they were actually needed, and then they became a liability. It will be interesting to see if the winner-take-all effort for late primaries takes effect.