Democratic Superdelegates Just Got a Little Less Super

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- While the Democrats haven’t finalized their rules changes for the 2020 presidential nomination contest, it appears that they’ve worked out a compromise to save the superdelegates, to be adopted when the full Democratic National Committee meets in a few days. 

We are talking here about the automatic convention delegates who get slots because of the positions they hold and not because they were elected as part of the nomination process — and, unlike the bulk of the delegates, are not committed to vote for any candidate unless they choose to do so. The proposed arrangement is to keep the supers, but take away their votes on the first ballot unless a candidate already has a majority. 

It’s not the worst idea ever, but it’s not ideal. 

While it wasn’t exactly the original intent behind the creation of superdelegates, as it evolved it turned out that the supers were a potentially good answer to what is essentially poor structure of the nomination system (which is no surprise, since the system evolved haphazardly rather than by any design). The problem has to do with the regular delegates. Voters in primaries and caucuses allot delegates between the candidates, but the actual delegates are slated by those candidates — which means that they generally select their most loyal supporters to fill that job. Normally, it doesn’t matter, because normally one candidate gets a clear majority before the convention, and the party is at least reasonably satisfied with that choice. 

However, it could matter.

It’s certainly possible that three or four candidates will stay in the race and pick up delegates throughout, with none of them pulling away enough to reach 50 percent plus one of the regular, pledged delegates. People will call that a “brokered” convention, but that’s a misnomer; a deadlocked convention, if it happens, will be composed of a whole lot of delegates whose only qualification is how strongly they supported their candidate. In that situation, having a group of unpledged delegates selected because of their party positions means that there is a way to break the deadlock, perhaps only by allowing the plurality winner to reach a majority.

The supers would also be helpful if the party decisively turns against a nominee who does have a majority. It’s extremely unlikely that would ever be a case of the supers attempting to reject a candidate the voters want — after all, those automatic delegates depend on voters for their positions, whether it’s in the formal party or as nominees for office. But it’s certainly possible to imagine situations in which a candidate wins lots of delegates early in the process but through scandal or some other events loses most of his or her support by the time the convention convenes, perhaps after losing several late primaries to a candidate who takes a strong lead in nationwide polls. Supers, if the pledged delegate was fairly close, would at least give the party the option of dumping a candidate who looked like a sure loser or otherwise was widely perceived to be a problem. 

Then there’s the possibility that two candidates finish the primaries and caucuses in a virtual tie. As we saw in 2008, it’s quite possible that both of them will have claims to being the choice of the people — even in the Democrats’ proportional representation delegate allocation system, it’s very possible for one candidate to win the most votes and the other to have a few more delegates. In that situation, supers might be able to break the tie decisively, allowing the winner to be known well in advance of the convention so that the party could begin to reconcile. That’s pretty close to what actually happened in 2008, with the supers switching to Barack Obama, who had the pledged delegate lead, even though he was something of an insurgent candidate.

By removing the ability of supers to vote on a contested first ballot, the new rules would make the second scenario — the supers help save the party from a dud candidate — impossible. It could also reduce the benefits of super intervention in the deadlock or virtual tie situations, because it might be at least somewhat less likely the losing candidates would accept the outcome in advance. 

The party perceives an advantage, however, in reducing the role of those automatic delegates because they seem illegitimate to some. As Virginia Democratic National Committee member Frank Leone puts it

This can happen at the national convention — candidate A may get a majority of the pledged delegates, but if the automatic delegates disproportionately support candidate B, candidate B gets the nomination. That has never happened (yet), but is a possibility. Moreover, under the current system, there is a perception that a candidate can obtain an unfair advantage of locking up a large number of delegates before the first primary vote is cast. The Superdelegate issue has undermined public trust and confidence in the Democratic Party.

This is, in my view, mostly nonsense, and it’s a mistake for the party to be bullied by people who believe they were harmed by supers in the past. It is hardly an unfair advantage if one candidate receives support from highly visible party actors before the Iowa caucuses; winning support of such people is, to the contrary, a result of campaign success. And the entire nature of these unpledged delegates is that they can reassess and change their minds as the process goes on. In 2008, Hillary Clinton entered Iowa with a large lead in superdelegates, but that all dissipated once Obama started winning. 

Is it possible that the supers could one day simply stage a coup and override the clear will of Democratic voters? Technically, yes, but practically, it’s never going to happen. After all, no group has as strong a stake in Democratic victories in the fall as Democratic Party officials and Democratic politicians. Overturning a clear voters’ choice would risk disaster in November, and risk a severe backlash against the people responsible. 

So over all, it’s good that Democrats appear ready to stick with the supers despite real pressure from some in the party to eliminate them. But it would have been better to just take the heat and leave things the way they were. 

1. Michael Poznansky at the Monkey Cage on all the dangers involved in Trump revoking security clearances

2. Christopher Galdieri on the possibility of New Hamshire’s Maggie Hassan contesting for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, and how that might change the New Hampshire primary. 

3. Andrew Desiderio and Sam Stein report on Elkhart, Indiana. I suspect this is much more about the dangers to Trump of trade wars than it is about how Trump is bulletproof. 

4. Annie Lowrey on marijuana addiction and other consequences of how legalization is progressing. 

5. And a nice item from Paul Waldman on voter turnout.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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