Democrats Take First Step Toward Reducing Power Of Superdelegates
Democrats are on the verge of reducing the power of superdelegates to the point where they will essentially become meaningless in the nomination process.
The Democratic Party is one step closer to making a major change to the role that superdelegates will play in future Presidential nomination contests:
The Democratic National Committee’s two-year debate over its presidential primary rules came closer to resolution Wednesday, as its key rulemaking body voted to curtail the power of unpledged delegates — so-called “superdelegates” — at the next convention.
At the end of a three-hour conference call, which was opened to the public, the Rules and Bylaws Committee adopted a compromise that grew out of lengthy negotiations between supporters of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
In the past, superdelegates were able to vote on the first ballot at the convention, for any nominee. The new rule would prohibit superdelegates from voting until a second ballot, or in the event a candidate arrived at the convention with enough pledged delegates — earned in primaries and caucuses — to secure the nomination.
“It fulfills our mandate without disenfranchising the people who have built the Democratic Party,” DNC chairman Tom Perez said near the start of the call. The reform, he said, would “rebuild the trust among many who feel, frankly, alienated from our party.”
Within an hour of the call’s conclusion, Sanders said the negotiations had done the trick.
“This decision will ensure that delegates elected by voters in primaries and caucuses will have the primary role in selecting the Democratic Party’s nominee at the 2020 convention,” Sanders said in a statement. “This is a major step forward in making the Democratic Party more open and transparent, and I applaud their action.”
On the call itself, dissent was largely limited to one rules committee member: former DNC chairman Don Fowler. In a series of back-and-forths, Fowler argued the reform would devalue the party activists and elected officials who made up the superdelegate pool.
Superdelegates, of course, have been a powerful force in the Democratic nomination process for the better part of the past thirty years or more. To some extent, the idea for such a process stemmed from the 1972 primaries that led to the nomination of George McGovern as the party’s nominee and a landslide victory for Richard Nixon that wasn’t even close to being a contest. Eight years later, the party was faced with an extended battle for the nomination between President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy that went a long way toward exposing already existing rifts in the party that threatened to pull the party apart, and which in part contributed to the disarray that led to Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in 1980 as many Democrats broke ranks to vote Republican After these disasters, Democratic Party insider moved to make reforms to the nominating process to prevent both the circumstances that led to the nomination of a longshot nominee like McGovern and the kind of protracted nomination fight that they saw between Carter and Kennedy in 1980. Part of those reforms involved changes to the primary process itself, but the biggest change came with the introduction of ‘superdelegates.’ These delegates mostly consist of elected officials on the state and Federal level. Unlike delegates selected via the primary process that are bound to the candidate who wins the primary or caucus, superdelegates are free agents who can shift their support from one candidate to another at will and, at least theoretically, use their power to end a divisive primary fight or block a McGovern-like nominee from rising up as he did in 1972.
In reality, though, superdelegates have not really played a decisive role in selecting a nominee in the time that they have existed. Each nominee from Jimmy Carter in 1976 forward to Hillary Clinton in 2016 has had enough support from the regular delegates to win the nomination outright, and while the party has faced hard-fought primary campaigns (See e.g., 1988, 1992, 2008, and 2016), it has not faced anything like the Carter vs. Kennedy fight that went all the way to the convention in 1980. This hasn’t stopped superdelegates from being controversial, though, especially as the Democratic Party has become more diverse and the base has perceived the superdelegates as being part of the party elite. In 2008, for example, many Obama supporters were upset by the fact that Democratic superdelegates continued to support Hillary Clinton even as their candidate continued to rack up primary victories. In the end, of course, a good number of those superdelegates ended up shifting their support to Obama and there was no controversy by the end of the process. Nonetheless, the seeds for a revolt over the superdelegate issue were planted.
This 2008 battle reared its head again eight years later as Hillary Clinton and Berne Sanders battled for the nomination notwithstanding the fact that Sanders was not at the time, and still not is, actually a member of the Democratic Party. Even before the first votes had been cast in the Democratic primaries, though, the vast majority of Democratic superdelegates had pledged their support to Clinton. For the most part, this was due to the fact that Clinton had widespread support inside the Democratic Party and that the Democratic field viewed as being quite weak while Clinton appeared for all the world to be the most electable candidate willing to run that the party could put forward. Even as Senator Sanders won party caucuses and some primaries, he was unable to gain much support among the superdelegates, who continued to remain loyal to Clinton. This, of course, led many of his supporters to claim that the primary process was rigged against him even though it was clear that, while Sanders was winning in some races, he was utterly failing in the seemingly simple task of winning states that actually matter or, most importantly, attracting support from African-American and other minority groups. In the end, of course, this superdelegate support did not make a real difference in the race. Clinton ended up winning support from “regular” delegates to win the nomination outright, and the support of the superdelegates once again proved to be non-decisive. Despite that fact, the ground was laid for a revolt over superdelegates.
The debate over the role of superdelegates began before the 2016 campaign was over. On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, for example, it was reported that the party was considering a plan that would required superdelegates to vote according to the outcome in their respective states on the first ballot at the national convention. After that, they would be free to toss their support to any candidate they chose. More recently, in anticipation of the summer meeting at which the final rule changes will be adopted, Democratic officials have been considering another plan under which the role of superdelegates on the first ballot would essentially be non-existent. For rather obvious reasons, these proposed changes were objected to by Congressional Democrats in no small part because it would significantly reduce their power inside the party.
This current plan, which would bar superdelegates from voting on a first ballot unless a candidate arrived at the convention without sufficient support to win the nomination outright seems rather pointless to me, though. Mostly this is because it’s unclear what purpose superdelegates would serve going forward given the fact that a national convention that goes beyond the first ballot has not happened in quite some time. It has also been quite some time since an eventual Democratic nominee has arrived at the convention without sufficient support from regular delegates to win on the first ballot. Given that, the superdelegates would be left essentially powerless in the nominating process to the point that one wonders why they would need to continue to exist in the numbers that they do.
Jazz Shaw suggests that this change could lead to more instability in the nomination process and possibly lead to a greater likelihood of a brokered convention:
It’s pretty early to be discussing such a fringe possibility, but the idea of a brokered convention is already being raised. If the party splits too evenly between a couple of establishment candidates and one of the new breed from the ranks of the Berniecrats, they may not have a clear winner. Of course, people were saying that about the GOP convention two years ago also and we somehow sorted it all out.
But that’s where the second ballot caveat in the rules change might come in. They could be stuck without anything close to a majority after the first ballot, but then the floodgates of the superdelegates would open and they could put an establishment candidate over the top. Of course, then they’ll just tick off the progressive wing of the base yet again, just when they’ll need every voter to show up if they hope to hold Trump to one term.
I suppose this is possible, but it strikes me as unlikely. As I said, we have not seen a truly brokered convention in quite some time, and neither major party has had a real brokered convention in the modern primary/caucus era. If there is a huge field of candidates in 2020 and they divide the delegate allocation sufficiently, it’s possible that the party could face that possibility. Again, though, this strikes me as unlikely. The natural tendency in these races is for voters to eventually unite behind a smaller group of candidates and for the eventual nominee to emerge from that group. I suspect that this is what will happen in 2020, but I guess we’ll have to wait to see what happens.
As I’ve noted before, though, if Democrats really want to reform the nominating process they ought to consider other alternatives:
If Democrats wanted to reform their process, they ought to be considering issues that go far beyond the rather irrelevant issue of superdelegates. For example, one of the main reasons that the primary battles in 2008 and 2016 were so drawn out is because current party rules require all states to award delegates on a proportional basis. This means that the candidate who wins the primary doesn’t really get much of an advantage from doing so and the process ends up getting dragged out longer than it ought to be because it becomes harder for a nominee to get the majority they need to win the nomination. Additionally, it seems to be long past time for both national parties to take a long and hard look at the whole idea of caucuses selecting delegates rather than primaries. As I’ve stated before, caucuses are a highly deficient means for selecting a nominee because they tend to lead to far lower participation by voters, don’t allow for early or absentee voting, and require people who may not have the means to do so to attend long party meetings at times that may be inconvenient for them. This is something that both national parties ought to look to, although in the end there isn’t much they can do about it since it’s an issue determined by state law and the preferences of state parties.
These changes to the nominating process would go much further to fixing the problems that the DNC seems to want to address than these rather meaningless changes to how superdelegates are used.