Thursday, 7 February 2008

Sorting out Superdelegates

Are they an anti-democratic outrage or a reasonable protection against an even more undemocratic brokered convention? Born out of the rancor which was the messy Democratic convention of 1968, the introduction of superdelegates is getting more attention this year as the race for the nomination remains close.

I have heard concerns expressed among some fellow Obama supporters that the superdelegates who are party insiders, are heavily skewed toward Clinton, and will tip the nomination to Clinton, even if Obama wins a clear majority of the other delegates. That scenario, in my view, is highly unlikely. Some have misreported the percentage of superdelegates as being close to or even over 40%, when in fact the actual percentage is 19.6%.

Still, that is certainly enough superdelegates to tip the nomination in a different direction than the duly elected delegates in a close campaign such as this one. Such a development would be a huge public relations disaster for the Democratic Party. Party insiders understand that, and I am confident there would be tremendous pressure on superdelegates to avoid it, regardless of which candidate would be affected.

Currently among the 796 superdelegates, 211 are pledged to Clinton & 128 are pledged to Obama, while 457 remain unpledged. (Other counts vary, but not substantially.) Clinton's lead in superdelegates therefore CURRENTLY is larger than her total lead. However, if Obama starts to pull ahead in future contests, but not enough to clinch the nomination with regular delegates, there will be strong pressure on the superdelegates to swing his way rather than create a situation where Clinton gets the nomination solely because of her backing by party regulars. In fact there would be pressure on previously committed Clinton superdelegates to switch rather than create a controversy that would damage the party and hurt the nominee's chances in November.

Call me naive, and I could be wrong, but actually I think practical politics will save us from this fear. That's not to say that I think Obama will win. Clinton still has a huge advantage from the inside machinery. But I believe she'll need to win the majority, or very close to the majority of the regular delegates to win the nomination.

Superdelegates may yet present the party with a PR dilemma if the race remains very close, with different methods of determination showing a different candidate ahead. For instance, what if Obama gains a small 10 to 50 vote lead among the regular delegates, but Clinton can point to a small but real popular vote margin among actual voters in the combined primaries? Or what if Clinton can claim she would have the regular delegate lead by sitting the Florida and Michigan delegates, even when ceding all of the uncommitted delegates to Obama, but Obama is clearly faring better in more recent head-to-head polling against the Republican nominee, as he is currently trending.

While I am confident that a significant number of the superdelegates will be motivated to support the candidate that the public feels has earned the nomination, if both candidates can stake convincing claims to that title, then all bets are off.

People will continue to challenge the logic of even having superdelegates, but we should remember that its genesis stemmed from concerns about brokered conventions, in which the winner can be determined in back rooms, and ultimately have far less to do with who the rank and file have voted for. The thinking was that by having party regulars, a large number of whom were duly elected by their own constituents, constitute a significant minority of the delegates, these folks could be counted on to follow popular trends to help to give a clear leader the majority, when multiple candidacies have split the delegate count sufficiently to otherwise keep that from happening. Since Edwards, the only additional candidate likely to have received significant numbers of delegates, dropped out before Super Tuesday, it turns out the the superdelegates are unlikely to play that role this year.

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