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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A (Qualified) Defense of Superdelegates

(NOTE: This guest post, by Dr. Stephen Medvic, Associate Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College, addresses claims that superdelegates threaten to overturn the “popular will” of Democratic voters.)
During this presidential cycle, criticism of the Democratic Party’s superdelegate system has been widespread and, at times, vociferous. Much of it has emanated from supporters of Sen. Barack Obama’s candidacy, who fear a superdelegate “coup” on behalf of Hillary Clinton to “overturn” the pledged delegate results from primaries and caucuses. But there’s a legitimate and important debate over the institution of superdelegates above and beyond their impact on this particular contest, and that’s what I will address in this essay.
There is no doubt, as many knowledgeable observers have pointed out, that the creation of superdelegates in the early 1980s was a move by party insiders to enhance the power of the party establishment. But the arguments made against their role in the process are a bit misguided.
First, today’s superdelegates are hardly the party bosses of yesteryear. Prior to 1972, the party establishment did wield considerable power in selecting the party’s nominee and that establishment did consist, for the most part, of older white men. Taken as a group, these men were certainly less progressive than the reformers who changed the party rules following the 1968 election. It is a mistake, however, to think of them as a homogenous cadre of conservatives. As Byron Shafer noted in Quiet Revolution, his history of the post-1968 Democratic Party reforms, the “orthodox Democratic coalition” was essentially blue-collar and included not only organized labor but civil rights organizations as well. It was replaced, incidentally, not by the rank-and-file, as is often suggested by opponents of the superdelegates, but by an “alternative Democratic coalition” of elites that was thoroughly white-collar.
Nevertheless, today’s establishment – embodied by the superdelegates – is extremely diverse, especially when compared to party insiders circa 1968. It is true that over 60 percent of the superdelegates are men, but that is the result of the fact that elected officials continue to be disproportionately male. Among the roughly 400 superdelegates who are not elected officials this discrepancy virtually disappears because party rules produce a significant level of gender balance on the Democratic National Committee (and members of the DNC serve as superdelegates). And while I am unaware of the precise demographic make-up of the superdelegates, it is safe to assume that minorities are represented in proportion to their numbers among Democratic Party constituencies. Indeed, party rules for DNC membership encourage “representation as nearly as practicable of minority groups, Blacks, Native Americans, Asian/Pacifics, Hispanics, women and youth, as indicated by their presence in the Democratic electorate.”
Furthermore, the notion that nearly 800 party leaders might coordinate their decisions in some sort of modern day smoke-filled room is laughable. The superdelegates cannot even be accused of group-think, since they are currently split almost evenly between support for Hillary Clinton and for Barack Obama. And because half of them are elected officials, they are likely to consider their constituents’ preferences when they determine their own. The charge against them, then, must simply be that they weren’t chosen in primaries or caucuses. But is that process worthy of the devotion that critics of the superdelegates appear to afford it?
Craig Holman of Public Citizen recently complained that superdelegates are “a device to try to reduce the influence of one-person, one-vote,” as if the non-superdelegates (or pledged delegates) represent equal numbers of voters. Of course, they don’t and there are numerous ways in which they fall short of that standard. The most obvious is the use of caucuses to allocate pledged delegates in some states. In Nevada, more people turned out in support of Clinton and, yet, Obama received more delegates. To be sure, most of those critical of superdelegates are also likely to oppose caucuses for selecting delegates. But are primaries considerably more democratic?

Presumably, delegates could be selected in a manner that approximates equal representation for all voters. But current Democratic Party rules penalize voters in non-Democratic states by apportioning delegates, in part, based on the states’ past presidential votes. Thus, Washington is awarded 97 delegates while Indiana has only 84, despite the fact that the population of the two states is nearly identical. Is it fair that a loyal Indiana Democrat will be underrepresented at the national convention for no other reason than that most of the voters in his or her state are Republicans? (There are party-building reasons for this – like giving state parties an incentive to mobilize Democratic voters – but it violates one-person, one-vote nonetheless.)
Furthermore, given varying rates of turnout, the delegate-to-voter ratios among the states are anything but equal, even if we remove the superdelegates from the calculation. Thus, in New Mexico, each pledged delegate represents 5,373 voters while delegates from Wisconsin represent 14,998 voters. That is a rather striking violation of political equality. In addition, voters in large states are underrepresented by delegate apportionment. In fact, among states that have held primaries to this point, those we might consider large (defined as having a population of at least four million) have a pledged delegate-to-voter ratio of 1 to 11,901 while in small states (those with a population of less than four million) the ratio is 1 to 8,753. It turns out, then, that even if there were no superdelegates (and no caucuses), the process of selecting delegates via primaries would distort the principle of one-person, one-vote.
The least convincing of the critics’ arguments is the claim that the “will of the voters” will be done so long as the superdelegates don’t subvert it. This assumes either that the voters who are participating in the process of selecting the Democratic Party nominee are themselves all Democrats or that it is acceptable for non-Democrats to help pick the Democratic Party’s nominee. Clearly, the former is not the case. More than half of all nominating contests will be open; that is, they will allow independents and, in some cases, Republicans, to participate. The real question, then, is whether this is acceptable.
Why should the Democratic Party allow its presidential nominee to be determined, if even in small measure, by those who do not consider themselves members of the party? Critics of the superdelegates seem to forget that the process so many people are now participating in is party business. It is not an election to public office. It is a way for the party to select its standard bearer. The party may choose to pick the person that best represents the principles of the party; or it may decide that electability is most important. But independents, and certainly Republicans, shouldn’t have a say in that process.
This essay is a qualified defense of superdelegates, rather than a wholehearted one, because I am also bothered by the possibility of elites determining the nominee of a party. (Whether that is avoidable under any system is another matter.) But I find more troubling the idea that anyone – including not only those who choose not to affiliate with a party, but those of the opposite party – should be allowed to help determine the direction of a political party.
If the critics of superdelegates are serious about democracy, they should seek first and foremost to ban caucuses. Next they should urge the Democratic Party to require all primaries to be closed. And, finally, they should insist that delegates are apportioned equally, based either on the population of a state or on some measure of the number of Democratic voters in a state. I prefer to get rid of the superdelegates too; but not until rank-and-file Democratic voters – and only rank-and-file Democratic voters – are allowed to determine the party’s nominee on a truly one-person, one-vote basis.

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