Delegates of Steel

Resident Scholar Norman J. Ornstein
Resident Scholar Norman J. Ornstein
The Democratic presidential nomination battle is virtually dead even between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And while Senator Obama has moved ahead in recent days, neither is likely to come close to the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination from the pledged delegates they are awarded in primaries and caucuses. So the key to victory is in the 796 votes given to so-called superdelegates, the elected and party officials--members of the Democratic National Committee, Democratic members of the House and Senate and others with automatic status under the party rules. Superdelegates are free agents, able to switch their endorsements or commitments at any time.

No one expected that this year's Democratic race would evolve this way. But now that it looks as if the nomination battle could go on for months, conceivably all the way to the convention, a reaction against superdelegates has begun. Donna Brazile, a commentator, long-time party strategist and superdelegate herself, told CNN, "If 795 of my colleagues decide this election, I will quit the Democratic Party." Gary Hart, the former senator and presidential candidate, recently declared that the influence of the superdelegates "should be curtailed."

So the key to victory is in the 796 votes given to so-called superdelegates, the elected and party officials--members of the Democratic National Committee, Democratic members of the House and Senate and others with automatic status under the party rules.

These reactions reflect in part a legitimate concern that heavy-handed lobbying of the superdelegates might reverse the outcome of the contest for pledged delegates in the primaries and caucuses. But a review of the history of superdelegates suggests they are likely to play a constructive role in resolving the nomination before the convention and in unifying the party for the general election campaign.

Superdelegates were created by the Hunt Commission, set up in 1982 and led by Gov. James Hunt of North Carolina. The commission was reacting in part to a nominating process in which the weight of influence was with a relatively small cadre of ideological activists whose involvement with the party was essentially limited to the once-every-four-years push to nominate a like-minded presidential candidate. Their influence coincided with election losses in 1972 and 1980, when Jimmy Carter's re-election effort was crimped by a draining primary challenge from the left.

The Hunt Commission proposed superdelegates (initially set at 14 percent of all delegates, subsequently increased to about 20 percent) to improve the party's mainstream appeal by moderating the new dominance of these activists and by increasing the contributions of elected and party officials to the Democratic platform and their impact on the selection of a nominee; to provide an element of peer review, weighing the requirements of the office, the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and the chances that they'll win; and to create stronger ties between the party and its elected officials to promote a unified campaign and teamwork in government.

In 1984, the superdelegates stepped in to provide a majority for Walter Mondale--who had a huge edge in pledged delegates over Gary Hart but not enough to win the nomination--avoiding a potentially bitter and divisive convention that would have fractured the party.

Contrary to the assertion by Mr. Hart, who is understandably unhappy with the system, the superdelegates do have to answer to the party's electorate. They have to go through the fire of elections themselves, or, as state or local party officials, are responsible for the election of the party's slate. No delegates are more sensitive to the potential pitfalls of the presidential candidates or their electability than the superdelegates.

They are not immune to the emotions that drive other delegates to be enthusiastic about certain candidates. But superdelegates, sensitive to the implications of internecine battles, are more likely to try to transcend emotions to find a reasonable outcome that enhances the party's chances of winning an election. The superdelegates do not unite to block the candidate with the strongest support from voters; they have always cast a majority of their votes for the candidate who won a majority or plurality of votes in the primaries.

In 2008, where two strong and capable candidates are fighting it out on every front, where the difficult issues of race and sex are on the table and where the gap between the two in total votes and pledged delegates is likely to be small, the potential for an explosive convention, where in the end half the delegates (and half the party) feels they have been cheated, is real.

In this case, the nomination could come down to a difficult and complex credentials battle over whether to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida. To have a nomination settled in this way is a bit like having an election settled by a 5-4 vote of the Supreme Court. Averting this kind of disaster is just what superdelegates are supposed to do.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI. Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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