Super delegates may sink the Democrats

January 19, 2008
(Also published in the Baltimore Sun, January 22, 2008)
Rules adopted in 1982 to take back the nominating process could haunt the party's leaders
    With the presidential nominations still very much up for grabs, the 2008 primaries have quickly shaped up as the most interesting in recent memory.
    Some early predictions were that the nominations would be a foregone conclusion by now or, at the latest, after Feb. 5, when 24 states, including California, hold primaries and caucuses. But both parties' races are still so tight and in flux that there is a chance in each party that no candidate will capture enough votes to secure the nomination before the conventions. This development would lead to great upheaval for either party, but it may be a significantly bigger danger for the Democrats because of a rule enacted in 1982 by party leaders. In 2008, the result may be a Democratic convention choosing a nominee who lacks the legitimacy of being the "people's choice."
    Until 1972, there was no uniform primary-and-caucus system; the nominees of both parties were chosen by the convention delegates. But after the tumultuous 1968 Democratic primary races, and after party leaders ensured then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey received the nomination despite not running in any primary, the party opened up the process. Suddenly, primaries and caucuses became the important component to the nominee selection process.
    However, this did not help the party win the presidency. The 1972 nominee, George McGovern, did very well in the primaries but went on to a crushing defeat in the general election. The party leaders saw further erosion of their own power in the two succeeding elections, as little-heralded Jimmy Carter won the nomination and the presidency in 1976, and Edward Kennedy was able to mount an unsuccessful but damaging primary challenge to Carter in 1980. In response, party leaders made a significant revision to the selection process.
    In 1982, party leaders allocated for themselves a heaping portion of the delegates, creating positions called super delegates. Every Democratic member of Congress, every Democratic governor and all of the elected members of the Democratic National Committee (the majority of the super delegates) were each granted a vote at the convention. Party leaders assumed this would help them retain a measure of control over the process -- and of course continue to be granted the bounty of political favors that historically flowed from backing the right horse at the convention. In 2008, the 796 super delegates will make up about 20% of the entire convention. Winning the nomination requires 2,025 delegates.
    In creating the super delegates, Democratic Party leaders sought to show that although they respected the popular will as expressed in the primaries and caucuses, they also expected that the super delegates could play a significant if not necessarily decisive role in the selection process. However, it did not work out that way. Popular will has put one candidate far enough ahead by the convention that the super delegates haven't come into play. Every nominee since these reforms has been decided based on the primary and caucus votes.
    This year might be different. Because no front-runner has emerged, and the compressed time frame of the election may prevent any candidate from gaining enough momentum, no candidate may have enough delegates by convention time. In that case, the super delegates, the majority of whom currently support Hillary Rodham Clinton -- but who could switch sides at any time -- could well be the decision-makers at the convention. And this could be a real problem for the Democratic Party.
    In general, the last place the public would want the nominee selected is on the convention floor. In the heyday of the conventions, when the presidential candidates were selected in backrooms and on the floor, there were always rumors of vote buying and corrupt bargains for the nomination. Today, such events could fatally weaken the candidate in the public's eyes. The existence of super delegates would compound the problem.
    The elected delegates, though virtually unknown, are at least selected by the voters and pledged to the candidate those voters chose. Most of the super delegates aren't chosen by the general populace, and they are not bound by the votes in their respective states. If they end up making the difference in the nomination -- especially if the winner came into the convention in second place -- there is a strong possibility of disenchanting a good portion of the party's base, potentially costing the party the election.
    Democratic Party leaders should be forewarned: The 1982 attempt to control the nomination could very well come back to haunt them in 2008.
    Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, frequently writes about election issues, and is a fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center at Wagner College.