As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world.
But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough.
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Monday, February 18, 2008

Should the super-delegates count?

It is difficult to see how a Convention majority can now be won by either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in the remaining primaries. So much attention is being paid to the role of the super-delegates at the Convention. (For updates on endorsements, and more in-depth analysis than anybody could reasonably need, see Democratic Convention Watch).

The superdelegates may not play as decisive a role as the arithmetic suggests. But a key question is how legitimate their role is - and what political damage would be done to the party's prospects in November if a candidate who was ahead on votes and elected delegates lost the nomination.

I am unconvinced by the characterisation of super-delegates as faceless party apparatchiks who should not have a say.

Firstly, the super-delegates are part of the rules and everybody has known it.

Secondly, the party's senior elected representatives - members of Congress, Governors and the like - can claim a legitimate stake in the nomination. The success of a Democratic Presidency will depend in part on the ability to work with them. They are public figures, who will be held accountable for their choices and role. The use of indirect democracy and an effective electoral college to select a candidate, fusing popular participation with checks and balances, this system is much more characteristic of the US conception of democratic politics than a genuine 'national primary' would be. I do agree with critics of the system that the growing proportion of superdelegates is problematic: I think it would be a better system if the superdelegates were a smaller group, not including the members of the Democratic National Committee. But that is an issue for future elections, rather than this one).

Thirdly, the Democratic party super-delegates are there for a reason. They are one of the very few examples, outside the allocation of power in Congress, where the idea of a national party in US politics has any meaning. The intention was to present an extra hurdle to insurgency campaigns, particularly to protect the party against enthusing itself into selecting a candidate likely to be hammered in the General Election, as had happened to George McGovern in 1972. The reform did not take place until 1982, the 1972 campaign had been one of the first where the primaries were decisive. (In the contentious and tragic 1968 campaign, the nominee Hubert Humphrey had not entered most of the primaries. Robert Kennedy, assassinated after winning the California primary, had defeated the alternative anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy while the favourite for the nomination held back).

Obama's is a challenger movement. But he is no McGovern. He would be not just a credible carrier of the party standard, but could well win an electability argument against Hillary Clinton.

So the case for a super-delegate veto of the Obama candidacy is weak. But, by the same token, 'playing by the rules' (as the Obama campaign rightly insists over the disputed Florida and Michigan delegations) should simply mean Obama's team accepting the need to meet the super-delegate test, by splitting the super-delegate vote sufficiently to maintain a lead at the Convention. He should be well placed to do so. Having won most votes and most states will be a persuasive argument, both morally and politically, as would the evidence of his greater ability to reach beyond the core Democrat vote.

Much will depend on the margin between candidates. If the elected delegates were effectively tied - or if one candidate had a lead of about 50 delegates - then it would be difficult to cast the battle for super-delegates as illegitimate. It would become the 'final caucus'. But if one candidate was 500 delegates ahead, the trailing candidate will surely fail to persuade super-delegates to overturn that, not least because the charge of illegitimacy would stick. But there is a grey area between these two scenarios. All that can be said is that public, political and media perceptions of fairness will matter a great deal - and early pledges from super-delegates may well not hold.

Ultimately, it seems unlikely that the nomination will be decided in a dramatic vote on the Convention floor. In that sense, the super-delegate issue could prove redundant. However, the means of persuading one candidate to concede would in part be the ability of key non-aligned figures - Howard Dean, Al Gore and other mediators - to articulate the party's interest and persuade significant numbers of other super-delegates to swing behind them.

These will be political decisions. But talk of 'smoke-filled rooms' will prove wide of the mark, and not just because of greater health awareness. If there is a clear public sense that one candidate has 'won' the primaries, then the Convention is likely to swing very firmly behind them. My instinct is that the role of the super-delegates may well be less to choose the new King or Queen of the Democrats, but in helping to manage victory and defeat for a unified Democrat coronation.

1 comment: said...

I don't know that much does really depend on the margin between candidates. I live in Virginia and Obama took the Commonwealth in overwhelming numbers in every district for an overall 64% to 35% but of the committed Supers, 6 have endorsed Clinton and only 4 for Obama. Kind of makes all the calls and canvassing and work we do to sway the people of the state seem like a waste of time when the Supers don't even remotely follow the people's choice. Why should .000007% of the population have 19.6% of the say in who we get to choose from?

The following address gives an updated list of the supers by state color coded by endorsement with the percentage of the state they took. Looks a little lopsided in some states to me!!

As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.