Sunday, January 27, 2008

Superdelegates: The Invisible Primary

WE'VE MOVED! Democratic Convention Watch is now at

The NY Times gives us its view of the superdelegate race:

The superdelegates are the target of something of an invisible primary as the rival campaigns woo them for endorsements, for the political connections such public backing can bring and for their actual support at the convention, should it be needed. The superdelegates can also be influenced by the primaries. An aide to Senator Barbara Boxer of California said Ms. Boxer would cast her superdelegate vote for the winner of the California primary on Feb. 5.

Superdelegates were created after the 1980 election and were intended to restore some of the power over the nomination process to party insiders, keeping a lid on the zeal of party activists. They immediately came in handy for Mr. Mondale in his 1984 presidential bid, when they gave him a cushion over the upstart campaign of Gary Hart.
According to a recent telephone survey of superdelegates by The New York Times and CBS News, about one-third have expressed no preference in the 2008 race, about 25 percent support Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and about 10 percent favor Senator Barack Obama. The remainder did not return calls or refused to comment.

But nothing in the rules binds any of the superdelegates, and they are free to shift positions, unlike pledged delegates who are committed to support a particular candidate at least through an initial convention vote. That creates a situation that political aficionados dream about: a deadlocked convention up for grabs until a bloc of superdelegates comes together and anoints a nominee.
Two comments. First, the note about Boxer is very interesting. It's a safe tactic to take, and one that would make critics of the superdelegate system happy. We'll keep an eye out for other superdelegates who commit in the same way.

Second, the Times says that pledged delegates "are committed to support a particular candidate at least through an initial convention vote." There is nothing in the convention rules that say that. As far as the national party is concerned, delegates are supposed to vote for the candidate they were elected for, but there is no binding requirement to do so. (Although we have heard that there are state rules that may bind delegates - but that needs more research).


Anonymous said...


It's worth distinguishing between superdelegates who hold elective office (like Boxer) and supers who qualify by virtue of being DNC members or by some other process. The elected officials have some incentive to display caution, particularly if they're in swing states or might face primary challengers. They don't want to be out of step with their electorate. So yeah, I suspect more than a few will take the Boxer approach, whether or not they announce it publicly.
On the other hand, DNC members are accountable to other party insiders, not to the general public. I'd be absolutely shocked if any member of the DNC decided to be bound by their state's primary election. They have everything to gain from making their endorsement a personal decision, even if that decision happens to be the same as the one made by the voters in their state.
Finally, a word about waffling and commitment. Elected officials serving as superdelegates are among the least likely to switch their endorsements, when they've been made publicly. It dilutes their credibility and their future impact. We've seen switching, for the most part, only when (a) a candidate no longer seems viable or (b) it becomes clear that the elected's constituency overwhelmingly supports someone other than the candidate they've endorsed. And even then, it's extraordinarily rare. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of DNC members. But it only holds true if the commitments are public. That's why your delegate counts are the gold standards, and the networks are full of it. In their zeal to get an inside edge on tracking the race, they're adding up opinion polls as if they were public commitments. I may tell a surveyer that I'm going to vote for Hillary this week, and for Obama the next - what's to stop me from changing my mind? But if I've made a public endorsement, there's a real cost to changing it. The candidate knows, my peers know, and the electorate knows. So until they're publicly announced, private preferences don't mean squat. That's why only DCW's counts should be used in tallying support. And thanks for compiling them.

Anonymous said...

good stuff thanks. i think we'll get a few more going public in the next few weeks.

Anonymous said...

it's downright cowardice to not endorse before the state votes. and are all the NY'ers commited to Clinton? I wanna see some of these USRep.'s jump ship when Obama wins their NY CD!

Anonymous said...

It's time to consider (post-November election) overhauling the DNC on its nominee selection process. First they disenfranchised both Michigan and Florida voters, now Howard Dean is nervous about the nomination ending in a brokered deal. He should have thought about that before the DNC took away the vote from the folks in Fla and Michigan! Hillary might have already been to the top if those two states had counted. Michigan may even have gone to Obama, since Hillary's was the only name on the ticket, next to "uncommitted." How did the DNC arrive at the "rules" for who goes first in the primaries anyway? How did the DNC arrive at such power? We accept it as though it is higher than the Constitution. Thus the problem with the superdelegates. This system needs overhaul. I'd like to see one primary date for the entire country.