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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Two Notes On Superdelegates and the “Popular Will”

Yesterday we published a guest post by Franklin & Marshall professor Stephen Medvic that offered a different take on the superdelegate debate than we usually hear. His analysis is based primarily on a challenge to the idea that delegates chosen by less-than-purely-representative formulas in lightly attended caucuses and open primaries really can be said to represent the popular will of Democrats.
I’d like to add two notes to the argument undertaken by Dr. Medvic.
First, virtually the entire debate over superdelegates seems to be based on the assumption that their sole purpose is to counteract or ratify caucus and primary results. As I recall from the original discussions surrounding superdelegates, there was another, much simpler rationale: ensuring that major Democratic elected officials would get to attend the convention as delegates. One of the byproducts of the earlier reforms in the nominating process had been to significantly limit elected official participation, except for those who happened to run for delegate positions on successful candidate tickets. And this in turn reinforced a fear that the Democratic Party was increasingly becoming bifurcated into a national party dominated by constituency groups and issue advocates, and state and local parties (and their elected officials) who represented voters, and arguably, the Democratic rank-and-file.
I raise this point for the simple reason that superdelegates do not have to have full voting rights, or the freedom to withold or change pledges of support, to exist. It’s not necessarily and all-or-nothing proposition. That’s worth keeping in mind when the subject is, as it will certainly be, taken up by the party after this election.
My second point relates to Dr. Medvic’s argument that only closed primaries electing delegates on a more strictly proportional basis are truly legitimate as expressions of the Democratic “popular will.” I generally agree with him about caucuses, with the qualification that caucuses vary in nature from quasi-primaries to highly demanding multi-hour events. And in terms of participation, there’s also no fixed pattern: Iowa’s caucuses are famously among the most demanding, but also have relatively high levels of participation and a lot of popularity among Democrats and the public as a whole.
The open/closed question is more complicated. A uniform system of closed primaries would require a uniform system of party registration among the states that current does not exist. A number of state, including several in the South, have no party registration at all, and states also vary in terms of the privileges typically accorded to independent or “undeclared” voters. And it’s no secret that many registered independents are functionally partisans, or at least lean strongly in one direction or the other. Closing primaries means excluding these voters from the party in a fairly overt way, making re-registration, instead of candidate support, the only way to expand formally expand the party’s electoral base. Absent any indication that non-registered-Democratic participation in presidential primaries significantly distorts outcomes, the political costs of demanding closed primaries strikes me as potentially high.
But actually, there’s a way out of this dilemma that’s already at play in many states: radically liberalized registration procedures. Same-day voter registration not only helps attract non-voters to the polls; it also makes it much easier for registered independents (and even Republicans) to re-register as Democrats and participate in closed primaries and caucuses. This is why the formally closed caucuses in Iowa, to mention one example, attracted so many independents: they were able to re-register right outside the caucus room. Arguably, requiring re-registration would deter most casual or tactical voters from participating in Democratic primaries and caucuses, while making true battlefield conversions much easier, and formally expanding the party’s base.
Dr. Medvic has raised some very important issues, but there may be ways to address them without abolishing superdelegates altogether or restricting the franchise in the Democratic nominating process.

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