Sunday, February 10, 2008

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A quick thought on superdelegates

Based on turnout to date, this is not going to be a fun year for the GOP. Say this for the Republicans, however -- the path to the presidental nomination makes more sense than the Democrats (the Washington caucuses excepted). The Republicans handled Michigan and Florida's decision to move their primary dates early by punishing them -- stripping half their delegates -- but not punishing them as severely as the Democrats did.

Plus, for all the talk of the GOP being an elitist party, they don't have superdelegates in a position to decide the nominee at the end of the day.

This is now a source of agita in the op-ed pages and the liberal blogosphere. Kevin Drum mildly defends them, asking, "The very existence of superdelegates assumes that they'll vote their own consciences, not merely parrot the results of the primaries. After all, why even have them if that's all they do?"

Similarly, Matt Yglesias observes, "The Democrats have had this dumb superdelegate thing in there for a couple of decades now with people mostly not focusing on it because it never comes into play. Well, now it might come into play and it doesn't sit well with people."

On this latter point, it's worth observing that Matt's analysis is a bit superficial. The superdelegates were designed to play a pivotal role at the beginning rather than the end of the primary season. Way back before the time of the blogs, a frontrunner could become a frontrunner by making it clear that he'she had the supprt of a supermajority of superdelegates (yes, I've always wanted to write that phrase). This was how frontrunners became frontrunners -- and how they preserved that status despite inevitable insurgent challengers. The idea is that their mere existence was sufficient to affect the dynamics of the primary campaign much earlier in the process.

Lest one think that I'm defending their existence, it's worth pointing out that the superdelegate idea has hisorically had disastrous consequences for the Democratic party's presidential aspirations. With the partial exception of Bill Clinton, the superdelegates helped ensure that the frontrunner wound up winning the nomination since 1984. This process meant that the Democrats ran Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry in November. There's no way that any politico can justify a process that delivers that set of outcomes.

Irony of ironies -- if the GOP had superdelegates, does anyone still think that John McCain -- the Republican who poses the strongest general election threat to a Democrat blowout this fall -- would be the presumptive nominee?

UPDATE: Jacob Levy is entertainingly bemused by the whole contretemps.

posted by Dan on 02.10.08 at 01:03 PM


Superdelegates had their origins in one of the Democrats' earlier electoral disasters.

This was the 1972 election, when domination of the then-new nomination process of primaries and open caucuses by liberal activists left veteran Democratic Congressmen and other elected officials without seats at the party's own convention. Coincidentally a lot of Democrats wound up voting for the Republican Presidential candidate that year, and Democrats made up their minds that this shouldn't happen again.

I'm personally skeptical that superdelegates at this year's convention will play the key role in deciding the Democratic nomination. I rather suspect most of them will vote with their respective states. I imagine that if the decision did come down to superdelegates, some of them might find themselves in an awkward position, not really knowing Sen. Obama and not really liking Sen. Clinton. But the primary season isn't over yet, and I'd expect the decision to be made by primary voters before the convention.

Blaming the nomination process, as Dan does, for the succession of unappealing Democratic Presidential candidates since the 1980s is unfair. The Democratic Party has for many years been dominated by organized interest groups with very specific agendas and a grasp of the way most other Americans think. The groups have long sought Democratic nominees whose passionate loyalty to their agendas they could take for granted, leaving the question of appeal to Americans not preoccupied with abortion rights, Israel, blocking tort reform or strangling challenges to the teachers' union's dominance of public education for the fall campaign -- by which time it was generally too late. Changing the process to prevent organized interest groups from dominating the party is something the Democratic Party will never voluntarily do; if that is going to change, rank and file Democratic voters will have to change it themselves.

posted by: Zathras on 02.10.08 at 01:03 PM [permalink]

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