Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On Superdelegates

From a response to Susan Estrich on Superdelegates
This is a somewhat unconventional view from an Obama supporter.

Posted By: The Wise Bard on Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The world has changed quite a bit since the time Susan is discussing. Many more states have elections and broad-scale caucuses. And the complexion of the superdelegates has changed to something more (if not fully) representative of the party, and of America.

There is a long time between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests and the Convention, and as we are learning, things can change quite a lot over the long primary season. Superdelegates provide a useful set of non-pledged delegates who can respond to these changing conditions, including the identity of the opposing major candidate(s) and things learned about the competing Democratic candidates over the long process of testing leading to the conventions. Ideally the superdelegates should stay unpledged until the convention (which many are not currently doing). If their participation in deciding the nominee reeks of a back room deal objectionable to a large faction of voters, the Party and its candidates (beyond the Presidential nominee) are likely to suffer in November--and the superdelegates know that.

And some followup in response to a challenge from another reader:
Posted By: The Wise Bard on Tuesday, February 19, 2008

In response to the gratuitously nasty comments of Mr. Thelen:

A large proportion of the superdelegates are elected officials--elected, that is, by the people, and responsible (and ultimately accountable) to them. Who exactly are the "regular" delegates? Can you name five of them, anywhere in the country? To whom are they accountable, particularly if the Convention goes beyond a first (committed) ballot?

If there were a single national primary, the likelihood of an insurgent candidate successfully challenging the "Establishment" is virtually nil. Insurgent movements build over time (at least if the insurgent is not a billionaire able to self-finance a campaign), and require proving oneself over time, best done in smaller jurisdictions (not necessarily Iowa or N.H.) less dependent on tv commercials and more open to retail-style politics. Obama, for instance, wouldn't have had a prayer of prevailing against Hillary Clinton in a one shot national primary. Tonight, here in Wisconsin (and with my enthusiastic support) he is taking his ninth straight event against the previous establishment favorite. Further, in a Presidential (as opposed to Parliamentary) system, with no "shadow Cabinet", the primary process, over time, provides a useful test of relevant leadership capacities of the candidate and his/her team, and tends to improve their abilities as campaigners and future leaders. That improvement has been evident in the Obama, Clinton, and Edwards campaigns this year, not to speak of the Republicans.

Perhaps we might have a system in which all states follow the same rules, but conduct their primary elections over time, to meet the objections to a single national primary. I would have no great objection to that, but I am inclined to favor a mix of primary elections and caucuses, which seem to do a better job of measuring enthusiasm and depth of commitment of each candidate's supporters, which may also favor insurgent candidacies.

It is also worth noting, contrary to Mr Thelen's initial remarks, that the superdelegates have a potentially significant impact on the ultimate nomination only in cases of close and prolonged contests, not where a candidate clearly prevails in the primary process. We heard little, if anything, about superdelegates in 2004, 2000, 1996...and my memories are not that clear about 1992 or 1988. We have to go back probably to 1984 for a clear instance of their impact.

To be sure, any political mechanism ultimately depends on the behavior of human beings, and can be subverted by bad behavior. My strong preference is that superdelegates withhold public statements of support or endorsement prior to the Convention. My guess this year is that an effort, say, by Clinton forces to "steal" a nomination earned by Obama would be self- (and party-) defeating, much as was the 1968 fiasco--and the superdelegates are likely to understand that. Of course, I could be wrong--and the fact that I can imagine the Clintons pursuing such a strategy is one among many reasons I am supporting Obama.

Posted By: The Wise Bard on Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Here is an interesting piece from Slate on the complexities of superdelegate voting, and the limitations of oversimplistic appeals to pure democracy:

The primary process, like our system of government more generally, is not designed to be a pure democracy, but a more complex mechanism responsive to multiple concerns. The state rules for selecting their delegates vary pretty widely, and test candidates in a variety of ways. If we wanted pure democracy, we would have a national primary. There are some pretty good reasons that we don't.

We might well consider varying strict proportionality (perhaps adopting winner-take-all by Congressional district, not by State), and perhaps reducing the proportion of superdelegates in the overall mix, to reduce the likelihood that superdelegates will have the determinative voice in a close and prolonged primary battle, but I think the flexibility that they add to the process makes some sense, if exercised wisely.

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