Beware the non-office-holding superdelegate
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — There are delegates, office-holding superdelegates, and unelected, non-office-holding superdelegates. Like every Democrat currently serving in Congress, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer is an office-holding superdelegate. What that means, he recently joked at a dinner in Washington, is that he has supernatural powers — he can subvert the will of the people. The power elite gathered for the annual Gridiron dinner, where politicians and the press roast each other, laughed at Hoyer’s description of his role in the Democratic primary nominating process, but the truth is, superdelegates are no laughing matter.
This somewhat mysterious cabal of Washington insiders will determine the Democratic nominee, and that is giving a lot of people heartburn, including the two remaining candidates. Superdelegates were created in 1983 as a way to increase the participation of party stalwarts in the nominating process, and give them a stake in attending the party convention. Nobody likes to say it out loud, but they were also put in place to temper the growing power of the people, whose collective voice in the primaries had replaced the smoked-filled room where candidates were once vetted and selected.
Only once in their 25 year history have super delegates played a role. That was in 1984, when Vice President Walter Mondale hadn’t won the requisite 2025 delegates at the end of the primary process and needed a boost. Mondale’s challenger, Colorado Senator Gary Hart, was behind in delegates, so when the supers swayed toward Mondale, it didn’t seem unfair. All they did was ratify the will of the people, and there was no outcry that they had stolen the nomination from Hart.
Fast forward to 2008 and you can begin to understand the dilemma that faces superdelegates today. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., leads Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in delegates, but not by much, a hundred or a hundred and fifty delegates depending on whose count you adopt. The two candidates are close in the popular vote with Obama at 49.5 percent and Clinton with 46.9 percent. Clinton argues that she has won bigger swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania that the Democrats must have in the fall, and that therefore she is the stronger candidate to face Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Obama points to states like Colorado and Virginia, where he’s done well, and argues that he can expand the electoral map for the Democrats in November and is therefore the better bet to win against McCain.
Superdelegates are free agents, answerable only to their consciences, which for a politician is often defined as how it affects their own reelection. Elected officials are one category, but there is another category of superdelegates that is harder to justify. These are the party stalwarts who control the machinery of politics, people like former Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe, longtime Clinton operative Harold Ickes and the former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, Donna Brazile, who is now a CNN commentator. They and dozens more like them have paid their dues in Democratic Party politics, but their role as an uber-nominating bloc of votes will be scrutinized, and their very existence challenged, as well it should be in a party that claims to uphold the small “d” part of democracy.
There is still the possibility that in the remaining 10 contests left on the primary calendar that one or the other candidate will run the table and emerge the strongest by any measure. It’s more likely that won’t happen, that they’ll trade off the remaining states, and the obvious choice for the party won’t be all that obvious. Obama has the stronger hand; he won more delegates, more states, and he has plenty of money to advance himself and his message in the upcoming primaries. But Hillary will not go easily, and the superdelegates will have to confront a decision that will make one or the other’s supporters very unhappy. This will be especially true if the non-office-holder superdelegates make the difference.
Published in The Messenger 4.15.08