Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Superdelegate Anxiety

Last night, Obama convincingly punctured the coalition of women, blue collars, older voters, and the non-college-educated, which had formed the core support for She Who Must Be Nominated. As Obama threatens the "inevitable" Clinton nomination, attention shifts to the automatic delegates -- the unpledged party regulars who make up about 20% of the convention delegates.

Last evening's results make it certain that the neither Obama nor SWMBN will secure the delegates needed to win the nomination through the primary system. It is also apparent that Obama will march into Denver in August having won more states, ahead in the popular vote, and with more pledged delegates than Hillary. The perceived threat is that the "superdelegates" would support the "designated" candidate of the party establishment and "overturn" the choice of the rank and file.

Nonsense. The 2008 convention can not be a rerun of 1968.

In 1968, when less than 30% of the public supported an unpopular war, the party bosses handed the nomination to a candidate who supported the war policies and had not only failed to win a single primary, but who had secured less than 5% of the popular vote.

But, back then, candidates didn't need the primaries to win the nomination. In 1968, only about a dozen states held primaries. In the remainder, the party delegates were mostly selected by the state committee and their votes controlled by one, or sometimes a small number of, party bosses.

After the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the leading anti-war candidate was Gene McCarthy, who had won more primaries than any other candidate and was leading all candidates in the popular vote. But, before the convention, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's vice-president and a supporter of the war policies of the Johnson administration, had secured enough delegates to obtain the nomination and didn't have to participate in the primaries. At the time of Kennedy's death, Humphrey was leading in the delegate count despite having ignored the primaries.

In 2008, when every state has a pre-convention delegate-selection process, the ability of the party bosses to select a nominee despite the outcome of the primaries is virtually eliminated. The superdelegates become relevant only where, as this year, no candidate comes to the convention controlling a majority of the pledged candidates and at least two are within about 800 votes of majority.

The superdelegates are party regulars, there are hundreds of them. Unlike 1968, when literally a handful of party bosses controlled the majority of the convention delegates, no one of them controls a significant number of votes. Instead, these party regulars and long-time party activists, are relatively free to make their own decisions.

They will, and should, make their decision based on their personal evaluation of which candidate would be best for the party, and the country. Essentially, one can reasonably expect their votes will go to the candidate that they believe is best positioned to lead the party to the overwhelming November victory that is apparently in the grasp of the Democrats.

If the nomination is not decided by the time of the convention (which is unlikely), the superdelegates are going to do the politically expedient thing -- go with the candidate who strides into the convention with the greater momentum, with the greater national support, with the greatest chance of taking back the White House. And that is exactly what they were designed to do -- they were not meant to be a modern-day equivalent of the party bosses who handed the party a disaster in 1968.

So, make yourself easy. It is unlikely that the superdelegates will be called on to decide this thing (in this little corner, we think it can be decided before the Pennsylvania primary). If they are, remember that they are lifetime Democrats and political activists. Their imperative is to put a Democrat in the White House and not one of them is going to vote for a person who they don't believe can do that.

(There's a pretty good list of the current status of the superdelegate endorsements at the 2008 Democratic Convention Watch blog.)


Wren said...

Nice to have you up and posting again, Slob. I've missed your writing skills and ability to explain things that tend toward the obtuse and confusing with clarity, simplicity and insight. The superdelegate "issue" is one of those most of us just don't get very well, but you've helped make it a lot clearer, at least for this reader. Thanks. And... welcome back!

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