Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Twilight of the Super Delegates

Whatever happens between now and November, the 2008 election will almost certainly end the era of the Super Delegate. Back in the 1970s, the average voter did not consider it her birthright to choose each party's presidential nominee. In 1972, the Democrats allowed their selection process to be dominated by primary elections for the first time. Their reward was a 49-state defeat, with George McGovern losing to Richard Nixon in a landslide of historic proportions. When the party, appropriately chastened, decided to return at least some of the power to bosses and insiders, almost nobody complained.

The Democrats added the Super Delegates, political officeholders and party officials, as a check against the sort of ideological, populist uprising that gave McGovern the nomination. At the time, the press, pundits, and even most of the attentive public considered this a reasonable decision. Parties are in the business of winning elections, and if that means rolling back popular sovereignty a little, then so be it. Nobody back in 1973 would have expected the Democratic Party to drive into a ditch for the sake of honoring the results of a bunch of primary elections.

Times, of course, have changed. Over the years, not only has the system of choosing nominees through primaries and caucuses become institutionalized, it has also remained, for the most part, uncontroversial. One candidate would wrap up the nomination well before the convention and the Super Delegates would be irrelevant, serving only to rubber stamp the overwhelming choice of the Democratic electorate.

Things are obviously different this year. In all likelihood, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton will arrive at the party's Denver convention with enough elected delegates to secure victory. Suddenly, the Super Delegates have been rediscovered, and many voters—especially Obama supporters—are unhappy to learn that they can vote however they wish, even if that means giving the nomination to the second place candidate, in this case Senator Clinton.

This has been, to say the least, a public relations disaster for the Democrats. Obama and his fanatical internet supporters insist that any result in which the Super Delegates side with Hillary will mean that the nomination has been stolen. That this is a willfully ignorant interpretation of party procedures is beside the point. Despite the fact that these rules have been in place for over 35 years, the Obama camp acts as though the goalposts are being moved in the middle of the game. The pundits, many of whom have despised the Clintons since the 1990s, are all too happy to play along.

Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean, who either frightens easily or secretly longs for an Obama victory (probably both), now argues that every Super Delegate should be prepared to publicize his or her choice by July 1. Barring the unexpected, this would put enormous pressure on the Supers to ratify the "people's choice", presumably Obama, even though he will have failed to secure the necessary delegates for the nomination. Dean suggests that the prospect of a brokered convention would be fatally damaging to the Democrats' prospects against John McCain and must, therefore, be avoided at all costs.

The Super Delegates, of course, were meant to introduce careful deliberation into the nomination process. Dean wants none of that. God forbid anyone refuse to turn Obama's plurality into a majority.

If Senator Obama wins the presidential election in November, his supporters, both in the grassroots and in the DNC, will have their decisions validated. The Super Delegates, they will say, are not only superfluous, but they almost prevented the right candidate from receiving the nomination and beating the Republicans. The internet devotees of "people powered politics" will, in their moment of triumph, insist on a return to the McGovern era rules in which virtually all delegates are selected through primaries and caucuses. Fair enough: to the victors go the spoils and all that.

Should Obama lose, however, these same people will attempt to blame Hillary Clinton and the Super Delegates for their own lack of wisdom and foresight. They will suggest that Clinton doomed Obama's bid by refusing to give up her campaign even after her efforts began to divide the party and deprive Obama of the head start he needed in the general election race. Without the Super Delegates, they will insist, Senator Clinton would have been forced, by mathematical imperative, to end her bid around the end of February, knowing that she could never win enough popular support to secure the nomination. Had she done so, Senator Obama could have spent the spring uniting the party and marshalling his resources for the fight against the GOP, rather than battling to prevent Hillary's Super Delegate coup.

The problem with both arguments, but especially the latter, is that history, unlike science fiction, allows us no glimpse into the counterfactual. Assuming Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, we will never know what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had succeeded in her strategy of rallying the Super Delegates behind her. Perhaps such an effort would have led to a triumphant Clinton/Obama ticket.

In a sense, the Democrats who created the role of the Super Delegate back in the 1970s should have seen this coming. Regardless of the supposed independence of these party officials, their actual purpose, to thwart the will of the people, always carried the risk of backlash. Imagine, for example, how George McGovern's supporters, in the angry heat of the Vietnam era, would have reacted if Lyndon Johnson's old vice president, Hubert Humphrey, had found a way to "steal" the nomination from their anti-war champion. A repeat of 1968 Chicago might have erupted right there on the glittering streets of Miami Beach. There are, in fact, worse things than losing 49 states (especially since Nixon had no coattails in '72 and would almost certainly have beaten Humphrey anyway).

Additionally, we should not necessarily assume that the wisdom of the smoke filled room is flawless. The last time Democratic Party regulars beat back an insurgent candidacy came in 1984, when Walter Mondale took the nomination from a young, charismatic Colorado senator named Gary Hart. That was also the second time that the Republicans achieved a 49-state Electoral College victory.

Still, there is an irony in the current dispute over the role of Super Delegates. Although the Democrats have lost five of the eight presidential elections held since 1972, this is the first time the Supers have ever been controversial. And yet, the Obama campaign, a grassroots groundswell largely fueled by ideologically-charged amateurs, represents precisely the kind of McGovern-like candidacy the Super Delegates were intended to scrutinize most carefully. But it appears that a frightened party will not allow them to do their job.

This is not to say that Barack Obama is facing a 49-state loss. He is not George McGovern, John McCain is not an incumbent, and 2008 is not 1972. There is every reason to believe that Senator Obama will be competitive all the way through to November. But it is barely April, we are just now learning the candidate's entire personal story, and the possibility remains that additional revelations—both good and bad—await. Insurgent candidacies, even those backed by millions of dollars and a new technology, are inherently risky.

Regardless, the Obama campaign, even if it accomplishes nothing else, will almost certainly succeed in ending the unexpectedly toothless reign of the Super Delegate.

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