The Superdelegate Problem
Though there are still primaries left, the Democratic Party may be headed for an August dilemma. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama is likely to enter the convention with a clinching majority of committed delegates chosen by voters in primaries and caucuses, but Obama is almost guaranteed to have more of them. So, barring a huge late turnaround, the deciding votes will come from the approximately 800 "superdelegates," automatically seated ex officio and free to vote as they please.
Who are these powerful insiders? Why are they there? The story goes back 40 years, to when the party, battered by the bloody debacle of the 1968 convention and subsequent loss to Richard Nixon, revised its method of selection to bring in more delegates who were outside the official circles of power, particularly women and people of color.
But in 1972 George McGovern lost 49 states. In 1976 Jimmy Carter squeezed out a close win over Gerald Ford, who was still floundering in the blowback from Watergate, and in 1980 Carter was buried under a Reagan landslide. In 1982, looking at this record of three losses in four tries, the party leaders decided to reform their earlier reform and bring back seasoned veterans familiar with the unlovely sausage-making machinery of actually choosing a candidate who can win.
The list now includes all Democratic members of Congress and of the Democratic National Committee, all sitting Democratic governors, all living former Democratic presidents and vice presidents and all past Democratic majority or minority leaders in both houses of Congress. They make up about 20 percent of all the delegates -- but 40 percent of the 2,025 needed to nominate.
If the Clinton team can persuade these men and women by summer that Obama is unable to win the general election and they choose her despite primary vote numbers in his favor, there is sure to be a loud and anguished protest about the violation of the democratic process. Delegates who have sweated their way through grueling primaries to win votes for their favorite don't want to feel that they simply took part in a nonbinding beauty contest. But the "supers" (a term the Democratic Party officially dislikes) could bristle equally at the idea of simply rubber-stamping the decision of delegates swept into the convention hall on a possibly short-lived wave of enthusiasm for a charismatic candidate. Either way, when the winner's hand is raised on the platform amid the bands and the balloons, it's going to be a wounded Democratic Party that finally gets down to contesting John McCain. And there's a possibility that disgruntled stay-home supporters of the loser could hand the election to the Republicans.
The party's in a pickle for which reformers and counter-reformers prepared the vat and the spices.
The problem didn't arise sooner because in all the Democratic nomination contests from 1984 on, the winners had the victory sewed up before the opening gavel fell. The new formula yielded only two wins in six elections. Actually, three, for Al Gore would have clearly won in Florida but for the questionable denial of ballots to large numbers of African-Americans and the confusion of many elderly Democratic voters by a "butterfly ballot" that made it hard to pick out Gore's line. The Supreme Court's fiat, however, confirmed the theft.
In all it appears that the post-1968 reforms as modified by the post-1980 reforms have not been lucky for the Democrats. The law of unintended consequences that often dogs reformers may be at work.
Open primaries, first introduced at the start of the last century, were a wonderful democratizing idea. But no one could foresee how, a century later, the primaries themselves would suffer the debasements of the general election -- too much money required simply to enter the race, let alone win; too much media attention to personalities and too little to policies, principles and programs.
Certainly it was heartening after 1968 to see faces on the Democratic convention floor more representative of the variety of American voters. And most people do not yearn for the era of nominations made at 2 a.m. by the old (and white) boys in the smoke-filled rooms. Yet look at what the old system produced, contrasted with the new. In the 10 elections ending in 1968 the Democrats nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt four times, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson twice, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. In the nine since then, McGovern, Carter twice, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton twice, Gore and John Kerry. Whatever their individual virtues, it would be hard to argue that they represent a major improvement on those seven predecessors.
It does seem as if the arranged marriage between a system of popularly chosen committed delegates and a small but potentially decisive cadre of unpledged and unelected but highly experienced delegates has struck a snag. Whatever happens this November, thoughtful Democrats of all persuasions need to take another look, perhaps another stab, at reconciling the two -- or expediting a divorce.