Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Third Way? Third Way Plus? The Democrats' Rules and Bylaws Committee Again Revisits Superdelegates

The Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) once again took up the issue of superdelegates and 2020 at its recent meeting in Providence (the one on June 8 that ran concurrent with the DNC Executive Committee meeting).

On some level, one could argue that battle lines were drawn. However, it was yet another incremental push toward an altered treatment of the fraction of Democratic national convention delegates who have been unpledged in past cycles. Much of the work of the previous four 2018 meetings of the RBC have centered on the two plans that emerged from the Unity Reform Commission report. But both the complexity of those two reform proposals and the fact that the changes required to implement either of them would require an amendment to the charter of the Democratic Party -- and thus a two-thirds supermajority vote of the full DNC -- set the bar for passage quite high.

As those plans have lost steam another gained traction. First raised at the first of two March RBC meetings, the plan now dubbed the Third Way would make the first vote on the presidential nomination at the national convention one tabulated based on the votes of just the pledged delegates; removing the automatic, unpledged delegates -- superdelegates -- from the initial equation. That simpler approach would also prove easier to implement on the front end. Only a simple majority of the DNC would be necessary to shepherd the reform over the finish line. It is that combination of factors that has, at least in part, won the Third Way option the backing of DNC chair Tom Perez.

But in the back and forth in Providence among RBC members over how the national convention roll call vote would be designed and handled under a Third Way scenario, there was some resistance to prohibiting superdelegate participation on the first ballot presidential nomination vote. FHQ will save a discussion of the bulk of that series of exchanges for another post. For now, I want to focus on one specific counterproposal -- friendly amendment -- to the Third Way: Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chair and Association of State Democratic Chairs (ASDC) chief, Ken Martin's Third Way Plus.

The rationale behind Martin's proposal is to add a caveat to the Third Way plan; an exemption of sorts. If the pledged delegate count at the end of primary season is conclusive -- there is a clear winner -- then there is no need to prohibit superdelegate participation in the first ballot presidential nomination vote. If those unpledged delegates cannot overturn the will of the voters, as the charge against superdelegates often goes, then there is no need to bar them.

In effect, that would make the final tally -- the final delegate count -- an actionable datapoint; an opt-in for the party in terms of superdelegate participation in the initial round. Either a candidate will have accrued a conclusive level of pledged delegates by the second Tuesday in June or they will have not.

Although the caveat is a potentially helpful bridge to those on the RBC and within the DNC opposed to stripping superdelegates of their vote in the first round, the real import in Martin's proposal is in the trigger mechanism. But it is a flawed mechanism.

It is flawed because it is potentially built on wishful thinking. Wishful in that the process will work the way it normally does. Candidates will run. Candidates will withdraw from the race as wins and losses are tabulated and delegates won. And all of them but one will drop out as the war of attrition plays out and/or once one candidate wins 50 percent plus one of the requisite number of delegates. And that may happen.

But it also may not. The scenario that has often been spoken about is one where a large field of 2020 Democratic candidates winnows slowly enough under proportional allocation rules to keep some candidate from a majority of delegates before the convention. Under that set of circumstances, the plus in Third Way Plus is left unactivated and the party ends up with one of two options. On the one hand, there is some maneuvering among the party, the candidates, and their pledged delegates/delegations ahead of the convention that gets a candidate to a simple majority level of support.

Alternatively, that first vote is devalued as the convention approaches. The second vote -- the one with superdelegates -- then, becomes the "real" vote. The convention goes through the motions on the first vote, it stalemates in a manner that reflects the end-of-primary-season delegate count, and the superdelegates are added to the equation on the second vote to resolve the nomination. One could hypothesize that the former is more likely the closer the plurality primary season winner is to the 50 percent plus one mark in the delegate count while the odds of the latter increase the smaller the share of delegates the plurality winner has.

Neither route is what one would consider "clean". Then again, any path taken in a sequential nomination system offers up its own quirks, roadblocks, and problems. But this is a quirk, a roadblock, a problem, or a scenario for which the RBC is not exactly planning.

And look, it is easy for someone outside the process to critique the efforts of rules makers. Those rules makers -- regardless of party -- have to weigh not only the future but account for the past, and particularly the pressures from parts of the broader party coalition to right the wrongs, real or perceived, of past cycles. Often those goals do not match; do not mesh well. For Democrats in the current context to plan for 2020, they have to address lingering issues from 2016. And while relevant in the context of 2016, those issues -- superdelegates or otherwise -- may not matter in the same way during and through the next iteration of the nomination system.

None of this is to suggest that superdelegates do not represent a real or perceived problem. However, it requires of the RBC a fair amount of balancing across a number of different dimensions, not just the 2016 versus 2020 one.

But how well does the Third Way or the amended Third Way Plus even -- partially or completely -- resolve the superdelegate-related issues leftover from 2016? That is worth exploring.
  • Neither plan gets rid of superdelegates. Nor, in fact, did either of the two proposals that emerged from the Unity Reform Commission (URC). The Third Way options reduce the influence of superdelegates by removing them from the first round of nomination voting at the convention (or in the case of the Plus, only if primary season was inconclusive). The two URC plans allowed superdelegates to retain their automatic status (They would remain delegates; delegates with their positions reserved rather than those that have to run for delegate positions.), but sought to bind 60 percent of those automatic delegates to candidates based on the results of primaries and caucuses. 
  • Neither plan completely prevents the controversial type of early influence superdelegates had in 2016. That ability of superdelegates to endorse early remains intact. That act -- an endorsement -- just would not count towards an evolving delegate count. Or would it? It is hard to imagine a situation where those votes are not counted even with an asterisk. "Candidate X has the support of Congressperson Y. Congressperson Y's vote at the convention may or may not matter, but Candidate X has that vote in hand if it does." And with or without that sort of secondary delegate count, patterns of these types of endorsements are bound to be reported. "Members of Congress and governors are flocking to Candidate X and none of the others." There are signals -- there is influence -- in that sort of activity under even a Third Way structure.
While "doing nothing is not an option," this particular something does not exactly address the two biggest complaints/desires coming out of 2016 (nor some of the scenario-specific issues described above).

What might?

One approach may be to wed the past with the future. Attempts to balance an infrastructural element of the Democratic delegate selection process almost demands that.

First, the future. Ken Martin's plus is a novel idea. But its value is in turning the final delegate count into an actionable point in the process and less about the trigger. To repeat, none of these plans call for the elimination of superdelegates, and that is a nod to them being a load-bearing part of the overall delegate selection process. Eliminating superdelegates means fewer delegate slots and more competition for those spots (potentially/likely more among/between rank-and-file members and elected officials). Changing that would have a cascading effect on other elements of the delegate selection process.

If one acknowledges, then, that superdelegates are not going anywhere, then how does the party deal with their influence? One component is nestled in Martin's trigger. Not the trigger itself, but in the cutoff; the end of primary season delegate count. That data can be determinative in terms of the superdelegates. Either a candidate has a conclusive number of delegates to claim the nomination or said candidate does not. If one candidate has met the threshold, then the superdelegates can participate as they could not overturn the will of the primary voters. That is the plus mechanism in Martin's Third Way Plus; the no harm, no foul outcome.

However, the alternative outcome is an inconclusive primary season. That is a scenario in which superdelegates may be needed to break the stalemate. A convention vote is not needed to accomplish that when the result is already known. Moreover, why potentially take that tiebreaker into a convention setting? It would be a wide departure from what conventions have evolved to in the modern era: a kickoff to the general election.

Now, at this point one may ask, "Well, is this not just a way to keep superdelegates involved in the process?" It does resemble the status quo. That is why it is necessary to couple with the end of primary season delegate count with an element from the superdelegates past.

[For more on the history of superdelegates see The Unity Reform Commission and Superdelegates]

When the superdelegates concept was rolled out for 1984, there were a set number of slots set aside. There were 400 apportioned to the state parties to dole out. Additionally, state party chairs and vice chairs were granted automatic spots and 60 percent of the members of Congress (the latter of which were selected by the House Democratic Caucus and the Senate Democratic Conference).

One problem that arose during that initial run was that the congressional superdelegate selection happened prior to the first round of contests. That was viewed at the time -- mainly because there was a near-consolidation of congressional support behind one candidate, Walter Mondale -- as an unofficial first primary; one that provided undue influence on the nomination.

This came up in the rules discussions after 1984, and, in fact, affected the 1988 rules. The process of determining who the superdelegates were was streamlined. The who part was specified, getting away from the process of state parties tagging folks as unpledged. Instead, DNC members from the states were granted superdelegate status in addition to officeholders like governors and big city mayors. Additionally, the percentage of members of Congress was increased from 60 percent to 80 percent. Both these moves upped the number of superdelegates for 1988 as compared to the previous cycle.

However, one corrective action the 1985 Fairness Commission -- the corollary to today's Unity Reform Commission -- helped produce was a change in the time period in which congressional superdelegates would be chosen. Rather than having that selection process happen before Iowa and New Hampshire, the process was pushed back to late April and early May. And the intent was reduce the influence of the most high-profile superdelegates. That late selection period and the fact that only 80 percent of the Democratic members of Congress were selected combined to limit superdelegate influence. Sure, Democratic members of Congress could endorse but the impact is muted if it is unknown (to the public) whether that vote would be cast in any meaningful way at the convention.

And that was something that was consistent with the Hunt Commission report/recommendations. That 1982 commission sought to get Democratic members of Congress back involved in the convention, the potential deliberations around the presidential nomination, and weighing in (if needed) at the convention. The changes instituted for 1988 accomplished that (although Dukakis was the presumptive nominee well before the convention).

The superdelegate system -- indeed, the nomination system -- evolved from that point, and by the 1996 cycle, the "randomness" of which Democratic members of Congress would be involved was eliminated. With all Democratic members of Congress involved thereafter, the "selection" process became frontloaded (or at the very least the decision to weigh in early was left to the discretion of the most high-profile of superdelegates and on the individual level).

It was that change over time that left the Democratic system vulnerable to charges of undue and early superdelegate influence under circumstances like 2016 (where there was a consolidation of superdelegate support behind one candidate).

Bringing back some of that "randomness" to the process and pushing the "selection" of congressional superdelegates to the end of primary season when pledged delegate count is complete would help mitigate the influence. It does not get rid of superdelegates -- that has not been on the table -- but it would reduce their influence. And that was the main complaint during and following 2016.

Look, this is not going to be implemented. It is too late in the rules process for that (although this is similar in some respects to the plan discussed by former DNC chair, Don Fowler, at the Providence meeting). But by combining elements of the future and past, the influence of superdelegates could be reduced without either some of the problems in Third Way or removing superdelegates from a scenario where their ability to break a primary season stalemate is needed.

But the complications of juggling the needs of a cycle yet to come with the leftovers a cycle just past often yield unintended consequences. That is the nature of making nomination rules in diverse party coalitions.


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