So... the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination may all come down to the mere whims of "superdelegates"?
I'm not yet ready to concede that point, by the way: as I noted in my previous Commentary regarding the post-'Super Tuesday' Republicans, there is that old saw to the effect that 'a month is a Year in Politics and a year a Political Lifetime' and, therefore, anything can happen (and probably will [;-)]) between now and the Convention in late August or, for that matter, between now and the last of the Presidential Primaries in early June. A major gaffe by one of the two remaining contenders for the nomination, some off-hand remark so easily "spun" by a rival into something more than it originally seemed to be, an unforeseen event- either here or overseas- that actually benefits the political postioning of one of the contenders to the detriment of the other (or merely a worse such "political positioning" in a contender's responding to such an event): any or all of these can change the political landscape of the Democratic presidential nomination contest in pretty much the amount of time it took you, the reader of this piece, to download this webpage when you first clicked on the link to this very Commentary...
simply put: there is still a long, long way to go, folks!--
at halftime at the Super Bowl last Sunday, it was the Patriots who were leading, but it would be the Giants who would emerge as Super Bowl Champions-- please keep in mind we are merely now at "halftime" (if we count off the number of "first-tier" delegate distribution "events" held through 'Super Duper' Tuesday) in the Democratic presidential nomination contest.
Having said that, we can still now reasonably consider the possible (if not yet probable) role of the "superdelegates" in the potential case where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both end up, after this coming June, well short of the "magic number"- the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination- in pledged delegates (those who, unlike the "superdelegates", are distributed amongst the presidential contenders proportionally according to the will of the voters in Primaries and, however indirectly in most cases, the participants in the Caucuses).
The "superdelegates" themselves are part of the same history that produced this whole proportional system of delegate pledging that is currently giving the Democratic Party hierarchy fits by allowing Clinton and Obama to so "duke it out" and it might be wise to now take a look back (one a bit more detailed than that heretofore provided elsewhere on this website) to see how it all got to where it happens to be right now:
Up through 1968, relatively few States held Presidential Primaries and the Conventions (of both Major Parties) were, by default, dominated by delegations utilizing the Caucus/Convention system to choose delegates to the National Conventions. For the Democrats of the 1960s, this had produced a problem: quite a few Southern States- many still adjusting to the inevitability of racial desegregation and Equality of Rights between Blacks and Whites, some still resistant to so adjusting- were accused of having Democratic Convention delegations not necessarily reflective of the actual breakdown of those who were supportive of the Democratic national ticket in said States: an outright "credentials fight" on the floor of the 1964 Democratic Convention over Mississippi's having an all-white delegation was narrowly avoided through compromise, one achieved largely because a then-still politically strong incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, was the Party's nominee that year but one that, at the same time, seemingly pleased relatively few in Atlantic City that summer.
By 1968, President Johnson's political capital- at least outside the Party (of which more soon)- was not what it had been four years before and the issue that had been smoothed over on the Jersey Shore could not be so smoothed over in the volatile atmosphere pervading the Big City on Lake Michigan where the Democratic Convention was now meeting. Thus, in 1968, there were actual credentials battles over the seating of "regular" delegations from three of the States of the old Confederacy, such battles creating bitterness and rancor on both sides (bitterness and rancor which helped fuel George Wallace's Third-Party candidacy to the point where he would win the Electoral Vote in 5 Southern States-- though, to be sure, Wallace took votes away from Republican standard-bearer [and eventual 1968 winner] Richard Nixon as much as he did from Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey: a "faithless" Republican Elector in a sixth Southern State is a good indicator of that!)
The "dirty little secret" of the 1968 Democratic National Convention is that it was, at least institutionally, still controlled by President Johnson, despite his having been forced out of the nomination race by weak showings (for an incumbent) against anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy in early Primaries and the winning of the vast majority of the (though still relatively few) Presidential Primaries by either McCarthy or equally anti-Vietnam War Robert Kennedy (tragically assassinated in the midst of the campaign): the key Convention committee chairmanships that year, as well as the Permanent Chairman of the Convention itself, were all long-time Johnson loyalists (more often, the Speaker of the House is pretty much automatically the Permanent Chairman of his or her Party's National Convention but, in 1968, Kennedy ally John McCormack gave way to then-House Majority Leader Carl Albert-- this was not an accident); meanwhile, the anti-war delegates' attempt to get their version of the plank on the Vietnam War into the Party Platform failed on a floor vote by a 3-2 margin. All of this should well show who was really "running the show" in Chicago in 1968!
Strangely, however, the 1968 Democratic Convention did produce an interesting floor vote that seems to have been largely overlooked at the time (given all the craziness going on both inside and outside the Convention Hall, this is most understandable) but, nonetheless, one that would help shape things in such a way that the Democratic Party of 2008- forty years later!- would find itself in its current predicament as I type this:
At one point, the Convention took up the issue of whether or not the Temporary Rules of the Convention (those set up by the Convention's rules committee to govern, at least, the earlier sessions of the Convention until things could get organized) should become the Permanent Rules of the Convention (in other words, those governing the remainder of the Convention's proceedings as well as rules related to the Call of the next National Convention). Basic 'Parliamentary Procedure 101' holds that 'the body actually meeting gets to make its own rules' (thus, the requirement that the rules committee's Temporary Rules be made permanent by full vote of the Convention itself) but this had, far more usually than not, been a rather routine procedural vote in previous Conventions.
Nothing about Democrats '68 in Chicago, it seems, was routine, however! A delegate from New York State had moved a minority report during debate over normally run-of-the-mill rules committee report adoption which, among other things, required that the Party work toward "assur[ing] that delegates are elected through party primary, convention or committee procedures open to public participation within the calendar year of the national convention". This minority report was approved by a rather close vote of 1350-1206, but it led to the McGovern-Fraser reforms which began to take effect in 1972 and which would come into fullest flower in 1976.
The culprit that had led to the dicey questions involving minority participation in Southern delegations, as well as control of the Chicago Convention by the pro-LBJ "old guard", was seen- by the reformers authorized to implement the recommendations of the 1968 Convention described in the previous paragraph- to have been the Caucus/Convention system. It is obvious that the more States that used Caucus/Convention as the vehicle for delegate selection, the more Convention delegations that would be controlled by Party insiders, though it also has to be pointed out that only two Southern States held Presidential Primaries in 1968 and only one (Florida) conducted a Primary in the sense most of us understand today (even so, Florida was much more a truly "Southern" State [in terms of its political subculture] in 1968 than it is today; Alabama, meanwhile, held a Primary but its delegates were officially Unpledged).
Thus, the McGovern-Fraser reformers recommended Proportionality in both Primaries and Caucus/Convention systems, as well as more Presidential Primaries. The number of Presidential Primaries did rise from 17 to 23 for 1972 and rose again to 30 for 1976 (helped, in large part, by State Legislatures taken over by Democrats in the wake of the Watergate scandal and its adverse effect on GOP electoral hopes in 1974: Democratic reformers could not themselves mandate Presidential Primaries, since Primaries were subject to the Election Law of the several States- the prerogative of State Legislatures, not all of which would be under Democratic Party control)-- and, once a majority of the States had adopted Presidential Primaries, there would be no turning back in that regard (for Republicans also saw value in the increase of the number of such Primaries [Ronald Reagan would begin his rise to the Presidency by having enough Primaries in which to challenge incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976; although Reagan lost the nomination that year, he was well set up for 1980]).
Proportionality, likewise, took two Presidential Election cycles to fully activate: the McGovern-Fraser reforms were announced in 1970, but they were not made a part of the Official Call of the next Democratic National Convention until 1971: as a result, Proportionality had to be held in abeyance as regarded 1972 (many States which had hitherto been holding Winner Take All Presidential Primaries under the dictates of State law held biennial sessions of their Legislatures [in which the Legislature only meets once every two years unless called into Special Session by the Governor]; in such States, it would have been impossible to implement Proportionality on behalf of the Democrats in time for the 1972 pre-Convention period):
This generated no little controversy when, at the 1972 Democratic Convention, George McGovern (the original chairman of the reform commission: he had turned the commission over to Congressman Donald Fraser when he became a presidential contender) ended up with the overall delegate lead going into that Convention largely due to his having edged Hubert Humphrey in California's Winner Take All Primary (although California's Legislature had a "quasi-biennial" system of sessions [it could meet in the second year, but briefly and only for limited purposes] and was controlled by the Democrats, the State's Republican Governor- Ronald Reagan- would have had no interest in calling the Legislature into session simply to enable a Presidential Primary change on behalf of the Democrats). Humphrey and other presidential contenders (who were hoping for a "brokered" Convention as the result of a potential McGovern-Humphrey "stalemate") argued, on the Convention floor (as they had also earlier argued in court, but the courts refused to get involved in such a "political question"), that McGovern should be shorn of the pledges of nearly 3/5 of the California delegation, a ploy which failed by a large enough margin to seal the presidential nomination for McGovern even before the Roll Call of the States.
To ensure that this would not ever become a problem again, the Convention voted- when the rules committee report came before it (the very same point in the Convention procedure that, four years earlier, had authorized the McGovern-Fraser reforms in the first place)- to require that, beginning in 1976, the pledging of National Convention delegates be based upon "the division of preferences expressed by those who participate in the presidential nominating process". From 1976 on, then, the current system of Proportionality (subject to a candidate reaching a 15% threshold) in all Democratic Primaries and at every level of a Democratic Caucus/Convention system was securely in place.
In 1976, all went fairly smoothly for the Democrats- Jimmy Carter deftly used the new Proportionality rules re: pledging delegates throughout the Primary/Caucus process to end up just shy of the presidential nomination when the final Primaries were held in early June (but so close as to be seen, within the Party elite, as pretty much unstoppable- thus, he easily got enough support from elsewhere to clinch the nomination well before the Convention itself). But this smoothness was rather deceptive: Carter was one of only two Democratic presidential contenders to clearly discern that a 2d place finish (or even 3d place, where there were still multiple contenders) in a State would still net him a healthy share of the delegates pledged in that State (the other was Morris Udall, though even he skipped a few contests Carter didn't); most of Carter's opponents in the '76 Democratic presidential nomination contest were still playing the old presidential nomination game of "pick yer poison" when it came to Primaries and Caucuses, a game Carter's triumph proved passe (it also helped Carter that, even as contenders dropped out, there were new contenders- though ones basically playing the old game [else they wouldn't have even jumped in!]- thinking they could still stop Carter). The nagging question was: what might have happened if Udall, for example, had actually been able to make things more competitive?-- the answer would come in 1980 and it would not be a good one for the Party.
For also securely in place as a result of McGovern-Fraser (it was used in 1972 and again in 1976) was a Democratic National Convention of some 3,000 delegates (3000 was thought to be the optimum size of a Democratic Convention- large enough to be fairly representative of the various factions and interests within [as well as the rank-and-file of] the Party, yet small enough to be manageable), 75% of which would be delegates pledged at the sub-State (usually Congressional District) level (this was thought to allow for the fair representation of factions within the Party that might not be able to command Statewide support, thus assuring such "dissenters"- if you will- of at least something of a voice at the Convention).
Then, after 1976, came the tinkering-by-addition:
First, the Democrats added the Party Leader/Elected Official (PLEO) delegate. The McGovern-Fraser reforms used in 1972 and 1976 had specifically done away with automatic ex officio delegates such as, for example, Democratic National Committee members. For 1980, it was decided that persons who were either local Party leaders or Democratic elected officials could have an at-large seat from their respective State in the Convention but only if they were willing to be pledged to a presidential contender through the usual Primary and Caucus/Convention process: such "pledged PLEOs" would be outside the optimum 3000 total number set for "ordinary" delegates under McGovern-Fraser (this change would end up bringing the size of the 1980 Democratic Convention up to more than 3,300)- they would also, however inadvertently, water down the impact of the sub-State "district delegates" (who, although permanently set at 75% of 3000, would now only be 2/3 of the Convention as a whole).
This latest change became somewhat controversial because (based on an assumption that more of the district delegates- precisely because they were pledged out of such sub-State areas [most States, but especially the larger ones, are not at all politically homogenous, even within the same Party]- were dissenters from the views of the at-large delegates [now including pledged PLEOs] from a given State) it seemed to give an inherent advantage to incumbent President Carter in his quest for re-nomination (after all, who would Democratic PLEOs be more likely to support?). In truth, an incumbent President running for re-nomination by his Party (the experience of Lyndon Johnson in 1968 notwithstanding) has a huge advantage to begin with, of course; in addition, Carter won most of the early Primaries and, thereby, established a big enough lead in delegates that his chief challenger- Ted Kennedy- found difficult to overcome and it can also be argued that most of the support for Kennedy later in the Primary/Caucus "season" was as much, if not more, about "protesting" the seeming inevitability of Carter's renomination than strong support for the youngest Kennedy's presidential aspirations per se.
Nonetheless, 1980 ended up producing a quite divisive Democratic Convention, one capped off by a rather lukewarm- where not altogether awkward- "Party unity" moment on the platform at the close of the Convention (Ted Kennedy looking about as comfortable as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick at the close of last Sunday's Super Bowl); even more of interest was the equally lukewarm/awkward reception given by President Carter to his own Party's platform, on which many concessions had been made to the more liberal Kennedy forces (this seemed particularly irritating to the supporters of an incumbent President who had bested the challenger by a 2-1 margin on the Roll Call of the States re: the presidential nomination itself). National Democratic leaders of today, thus, so easily lump 1980 in with 1968 and 1972 as "undesirable" Conventions in terms of what they would most prefer to have at their quadrennial gatherings, even though analyzing the actual hard delegate numbers would suggest nothing like the two earlier Conventions was at all in play in 1980.
Like so many things in Politics, the "superdelegate" was born of altruism mixed with more than a little political gamesmanship:
For 1984, the Democrats allowed anyone who was Democratic Governor, Senator or Congressman, a member of the Democratic National Committee, as well as "Distinguished Party Leaders" (former Presidents and Vice Presidents, other Party notables) to have an automatic seat at the Convention. These PLEOs would be "Unpledged" (that is, they would not be subjected to the pledging regimen of the Primaries and Caucuses) and, thus, would be "free agents" at the Convention, technically free to vote for any presidential contender they chose during the Roll Call of the States.
On the surface, this simply seemed a way to provide for what were, in effect, "honorary" delegates but, underneath it all, there was always the potential for something of a modern throwback to the days when Party insiders were 'kingmakers"- all that seemed to be missing was the proverbial "smoke-filled room"! To be fair, by including every key Statewide elected official in the Party (meaning, Governors and U.S. Senators- the very group from which presidential contenders usually come) and every Democratic Member of Congress, the Democrats virtually guaranteed that these "Unpledged PLEOs" would rarely be a monolithic group (for there are, as ever, many a maverick amongst these, thus there would always be a more or less noteworthy number of "dissenters" who did not necessarily toe the mainstream Party line [though the Party would not be at all above "punishing" (by denying said Unpledged PLEO seats to) those who were so maverick as to help the Republicans!-- Senator Zell Miller of Georgia in 2004; Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut this year, for example]) but it was equally clear that these "superdelegates" (as the world of Political Punditry soon crowned them) would at least have the potential to put the imprimatur of the Party leadership on any potential Democratic presidential nominee.
Rightly or wrongly, these "superdelegates" were- at the outset- perceived, by many political observers, to principally be a vehicle through which what had happened four years before (where an incumbent President found his own Party adopting a platform filled with concessions to his chief rival for the nomination [many Carter supporters saw the roots of Carter's defeat at Ronald Reagan's hands in what had happened at the 1980 Democratic Convention, as Carter was saddled with platform planks more liberal than Carter himself]) could now be avoided. With nearly 20% of what would now be a Convention of close to (and. later, over) 4,000 delegates being these "superdelegates" (the percentage, of course, would vary from Convention to Convention- primarily based on how successful or not were Democratic Gubernatorial, Senatorial and Congressional candidates in the interim), the likelihood of the many concessions to a losing faction seen in the 1980 Convention was greatly reduced. Moreover, the "superdelegates" could- since they were, theoretically, free agents up until the very Roll Call of the States re: Presidential Nomination itself- make sure that the Convention didn't nominate the "wrong" candidate for President ("wrong" as perceived by the Party hierarchy, whom at least most of these "superdelegates" would more likely follow). Thus, the new "Unpledged PLEOs" would also have the capacity to potentially block someone from the nomination whom the Party leadership deemed "unelectable" or who did not fit the hierarchy's vision of what the Party should stand for, regardless of the will of the voters who took part in the Primaries and Caucuses as exhibited by the allocation of pledged delegates amongst presidential contenders.
And this may very well have been the case in 1984, the very first year of the "superdelegate": Gary Hart won more Primaries than Fritz Mondale and won some of the later ones by quite large margins (again, as was the case with Ted Kennedy, I am sure a healthy chunk of this was less pro-Hart than anti-inevitability). There are many political historians who debate whether or not Mondale had really clinched the nomination on Wednesday 6 June (as he claimed in a Noontime press conference that day after what used to be "Super Tuesday" [yes, young'uns, there once was a time when "Super Tuesday" was at the end of the Primary/Caucus process]- a victory press conference he had, three months earlier [when his campaign was still well on the ropes], defiantly told reporters he would only end up calling in any event) and whether, then, Gary Hart's famous comment in response- "Welcome to overtime"- was not, in fact, mere sour grapes.
There is also the thought that Mondale was the first presidential nominee-presumptive (or was he? [;-)]) to name his vice-presidential running mate before even officially being nominated (a practice that has now become de rigueur [though, young'uns, 'twas not ever thus] and which has taken any suspense out of the more usual National Convention of late) not so much because of the novelty of that running mate being a woman (one who also happened to be my own Congressman at the time, by the way) but because he was "dropping leaflets" that he was, indeed, going to be the Party's standard-bearer, no matter how many numbers Hart might crunch suggesting otherwise. Regardless of the truth or not of such speculation (even where such speculation be scholarly, rather than conspiracy-oriented, in nature), the raw factoid is that Mondale got less than 56% of the total Convention vote on the Roll Call of the States-- meaning that, in any event, those "superdelegates" sure came in handy for the Minnesotan!
"Superdelegates" were not much of an issue after 1984-- until (possibly) this year, of course!:
Michael Dukakis won the 1988 Democratic nomination with enough of a margin that it cannot be said that "superdelegate" support was a real factor; of Bill Clinton (who, in 1992, emerged with nearly 80% of the delegate votes on the Convention floor), it was even less so. The very existence of "superdelegates" might well have put one-time professional athlete Bill Bradley in cement sneakers at the very start of the 2000 presidential nomination race (the subject of my very first Commentary for this website, by the way) but Al Gore won the presidential nomination so easily in the battle for pledged delegates that this all became a moot point by the time the Democrats convened in Los Angeles. Likewise, John Kerry really didn't need "superdelegates" in order to "report for duty" before the 2004 Convention in Boston.
But this year could well be different... again, I don't right now think it will be-- but, obviously, it still could be.
'Super Duper' Tuesday only served to leave the Democratic race in that oxymoronic (as I've already described it in other contexts in earlier Commentaries during this pre-Convention period) "virtual tie". Which Democratic contender- Clinton or Obama- won on 5 February?: well, neither of them-- and, at the same time, both of them!
For both did what they had to do: Senator Clinton had to keep her head above water-- she did just that, scoring significant victories in the many of the larger States, such as New Jersey and California; meanwhile, Senator Obama did what he had to do, too-- he managed to stay on Mrs. Clinton's tail, not letting her too far ahead of him.
But 'Super Duper' Tuesday had all the feel of a knock-down, drag-out, all 15-rounder of a fight with, at the end, no knockout and no judge's decision either: Hillary upsets Barack in Massachusetts, but Obama comes right back and takes neighboring Connecticut; Barack pounds Clinton in Alabama and Georgia, but Hillary comes roaring back in Tennessee and Oklahoma, yet she loses Missouri. Senator Clinton's wins in Arkansas and New York, and Senator Obama's in Illinois were expected, of course. Obama won all caucuses but 1, Clinton bested Obama by 1 in primaries.
The bell sounds-- and there is no undisputed champion. It was, indeed, a crazy evening this past Tuesday into the wee wee hours of Wednesday the 6th.
Then again, it is really only "halftime"!
Hence, all the consternation surrounding the role of the "superdelegates" in 2008. No matter what has happened on Saturday 9 February (and, as I type this very sentence, returns from the delegate distribution "events" of that date are flying in "hot and heavy"-- but most of you reading this will already know who won what on the Democratic side during the first post-'Super Duper' Tuesday weekend), we are surely in for something of a dogfight between Clinton and Obama through at least the next few weeks, if not well beyond that- and, as a result, the possible overturning of the will of the Democratic rank-and-file (as expressed by the ultimate, final breakdown of pledged delegates among the contenders for the nomination) by "superdelegates" who were not even grazed by the delegate selection process cannot be all that pleasant a prospect for the leadership of a Party that has given itself the very name "Democratic"!