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Do Superdelegates Stack The Deck?

Hillary Clinton speaking at the 2008 Democratic National Convention
The Democratic National Convention, 2008. Photo by Kelly DeLay.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton ended in a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses, before Sanders proceeded to smoke Clinton by 22 percentage points in the New Hampshire primary. So unless you follow politics obsessively, either for a hobby or for a living, their standing in the current delegate count would probably surprise you.

The tally, according to The Associated Press, is Clinton 394, Sanders 44.

This is because about 15 percent of the Democratic Party’s national convention votes are awarded to “superdelegates.” These are elected officeholders and other political pros who are entitled to attend and vote at the convention without first being selected by rank-and-file party members. Unlike delegates allocated through primaries and caucuses in most states, the superdelegates are free to back whomever they please. They may pledge loyalty to a candidate, but they can shift their allegiance along with the political wind if they wish.

This means Clinton’s 394 is not set in stone; if the popular tide turns, some of her previously pledged delegates could change their minds. In fact, this is exactly what happened to Clinton in 2008, when she started the campaign with many pledges of support from superdelegates who later switched to Barack Obama’s side as his campaign gained momentum.

These are the facts. How you feel about these facts depends largely on how deeply committed you are to a particular political ideology and its reflection in your preferred party’s candidates and platform.

We hear a lot of moaning and groaning these days about the inability of our two parties to compromise and about the demise of the political center. This complaint is well-grounded in fact. Liberal Republicans are almost extinct as a political species, and conservative Democrats are severely endangered. The polarization of the parties over the last 40 years or so tracks very closely with the rise of the modern primary system for selecting presidential candidates, and the increased sophistication of congressional gerrymandering that made most congressional seats safe for one party or the other. In those safe seats, the prevailing party’s primary is, for practical purposes, the election.

Most voters don’t bother to vote in primaries, even in presidential primaries. Even fewer turn out for time-consuming caucuses. This leaves the selection process in the hands of the most committed and most extreme partisans in each camp.

On the Democratic side, the left-wing group MoveOn.org is representative. The group, which combines public policy advocacy with a political action committee, issued a petition calling on superdelegates to promise to support whichever candidate primary voters select in their states. In a statement, the group’s executive director characterized a failure to do so as an effort “to thwart the will of the people.” It is hardly surprising that MoveOn is worried about all those superdelegates who currently pledge loyalty to Clinton. MoveOn, which has already endorsed Sanders, is trying to pressure the superdelegates to follow the wishes of primary voters - who, at least within MoveOn’s membership, largely support the Vermont senator.

If you are a Democratic officeholder in a safely Democratic seat, ignoring the wishes of a group like MoveOn can be dangerous to your political health. But that may not be the case for Democrats in swing districts or in purple states. Although those are exactly the places in which Clinton should beat Sanders anyway, coming out for the self-described socialist Vermonter may not be the best strategy if, say, you hold a statewide office in North Dakota.

Political professionals are more interested in winning elections than in maintaining ideological purity. Most of them have better job prospects when their party is in power. Thus, in the old “smoke-filled rooms” where party bosses picked their candidates, there was a strong emphasis on picking the candidate with the best chance of winning a general election. The old process drove parties toward the political center; the current one drives them toward the poles. Hence the current, much-derided polarization of our parties.

Is it inherently more democratic to allow party activists and other primary-goers to control the nomination process? Is the answer different in places that do not allow unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries, or ones where a party’s members can vote in the other’s primary and potentially push for opposition candidates with dim prospects?

If primaries truly are the more democratic means of choosing our candidates and we want more democracy, then we may just have to accept that more democracy means more polarization and less compromise. You can’t have everything.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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