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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Measuring the Will of the People

It’s not much of a secret that if Democratic primary and caucus participants don’t, as appears almost certain, give any candidate the delegates he or she needs to win the presidential nomination without superdelegates, there will be a big battle over the question of whether superdelegates should be truly free to express their preferences, or should defer to the “will of the people.”
While Hillary Clinton’s campaign has officially argued for the former, “free will” interpretation of the superdelegate role, it’s doubtful that position will be politically tenable if the “will of the people” clearly favors Barack Obama.
But ah, there’s the rub. How does one measure the “will of the people?” Pledged delegates? The popular vote by state? The popular vote by congressional district? Or the total national popular vote?
Over at DailyKos, Markos Moulitsas does a useful estimate of how superdelegates would, roughly, break if they vote according to the primary or caucus winner of the state to which they are assigned. Turns out they wouldn’t help HRC much if at all.
But is that the right measurement of the “popular will?” Who knows?
I agree with Markos that the only “popular will” measurement that HRC has a decent if uphill chance to win is the total popular vote. That measurement is complicated, not only because of the Michigan/Florida problem, but also because some caucus states (typically won by Obama) have not reported their actual raw vote.
But I don’t agree with him that the burden of proof for HRC is to establish that she’s the “people’s choice” that all superdelegates should be constrained to support. Her goal is to cast just enough doubt on the “popular will”–i.e., the results of the entire nominating process up until the convention–that superdelegates will feel morally and politically empowered to choose on different criteria, such as general election strength. It all the votes are perceived as adding up to a tie, then complicated schemes for “binding” superdelegates may amount to nothing, particularly since some of them (e.g., Virginia superdelegate Terry McAuliffe, whose district and state went for Obama) ain’t budging and there’s no mechanism for actually enforcing popular-will obeisance, even if advocates for that approach could agree on the right measurement. And for the same reasons, I wouldn’t expect the two campaigns to argue for any particular “binding” theory, which could produce perverse results if one candidate’s “supers” complied and the other one’s didn’t.
There’s an interesting discussion of this general issue up on the New Republic site between Jon Chait and Jon Cohn, but it’s more about the theory of superdelegate independence than the question of how to limit it.
Meanwhile, also at TNR, Michelle Cottle has a post about the awful but increasingly realistic specter of small groups of superdelegates peddling their votes for parochial interests.
None of this is going to be easy or clear, folks, unless one candidate or another gains massive momentum in the rest of the primaries and caucuses. Without question, Barack Obama still has the clear advantage, but it could get crazy down the stretch.

2 comments on “Measuring the Will of the People

  1. nonplussed on

    I don’t understand why there is any controversey about the superdelegates. Maybe it’s the name. It makes them sound like they are a different class of delegate. They are not. They are delegates, period.

    Reply
  2. links on

    Its things like super delegates and the electoral college that make American politics so interesting. What fun would it be if the popular vote decided everything? Kind of like how the Giants are Super Bowl champions even though there were probably 5 or 6 teams “better” than they were last year.

    Reply

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