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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Super Delegates: Abolish or Reform?

Apropos of Ed’s post below citing the need for systematic reforms of our nominating process before ’12, abolishing the superdelegates or redefining their role and qualifications should top the list. Toward that end, Josh Marshall has an instructive TPM post “Thumb on the Scales” mulling over the history of the superdelegates, which were established in 1982, and he notes:

The more palatable argument was that the superdelegates balanced out the idealism of party activists with the more pragmatic experience of party regulars and elected officials who had experience winning actual elections. But however you argue it, the supers were put there precisely to second-guess the results of the primary and caucus process.
…Indeed, it’s not only that the concept is less palatable today. The sociology of the party is simply different; from the inside I don’t think the party’s critics any longer see its shortcomings in that way. The superdelegate concept was just a bad idea that got kept on the books because it seemed not to have any practical effect other than to give federal officeholders and sundry party bigwigs credentials to attend the conventions.

Marshall also comments on the important distinction between superdelegates who are elected officials, vs. party operatives:

…there are almost 800 superdelegates and they’re divided roughly equally between elected officials and party officials. While I think the superdelegate system should probably be scrapped in its entirety, the rationale for the elected folks is far, far greater than for the party operatives. The electeds are basically every Democratic member of Congress, Democratic governors and then a few miscellaneous folks like ex-presidents, ex-vice presidents and ex-congressional leaders. These folks are actually elected by Democrats on a fairly regular basis. And if they abuse the power they can be held accountable at the ballot box.

I come down with Marshall on the side of getting rid of them before ’12, as a way of making a clean break with the notion that it’s OK to thwart the will of the voters in some circumstances. Getting rid of them altogether would make a simple statement that the 21st century Democratic Party has faith in the decisions of voters. If the Party is going to keep the superdelegates, however, I would agree with Marshall that they should insist that only elected officials, not unelected party operatives, can serve in this capacity.
I can think of only one situation in which the super-d’s can serve democracy in an honorable way: in the event that a candidate gets enough delegates to secure the nomination despite the fact that her/his opponent got more popular votes. This can happen when a candidate loses or wins enough districts by a huge margin, despite having more/less popular votes nation-wide. In that event, the superdelegates could decide to give the nomination to the popular vote winner. But it should be stipulated that the superdelegate designees would be empowered as delegates only when the popular vote winner receives fewer delegate votes.
There are other reforms of the nominating process that merit consideration before ’12, including the primary calendar and possible incentives for caucus states switching to direct primary elections. But abolishing or reforming the outdated superdelegate system should be a simpler, and quicker fix.

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