Saturday, February 16, 2008

What's Wrong With Superdelegates?

One thing I've been having trouble figuring out, when I discount the obvious political motivations, is all the yammering this week about superdelegates:

Hillary Clinton will take the Democratic nomination even if she does not win the popular vote, but persuades enough superdelegates to vote for her at the convention, her campaign advisers say.

The New York senator, who lost three primaries Tuesday night, now lags slightly behind her rival, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, in the delegate count. She is even further behind in "pledged'' delegates, those assigned by virtue of primaries and caucuses.

But Clinton will not concede the race to Obama if he wins a greater number of pledged delegates by the end of the primary season, and will count on the 796 elected officials and party bigwigs to put her over the top, if necessary, said Clinton's communications director, Howard Wolfson.

Clinton counts on superdelegates

A political strategist has decided that a way of winning that's within the rules is OK. Yawn. What are these "superdelegates", anyway:

"Superdelegate" is an informal term for some of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention, the quadrennial convention of the United States Democratic Party.

Unlike most convention delegates, the superdelegates are not selected based on the party primaries and caucuses in each U.S. state. Instead, the superdelegates are seated automatically, based solely on their status as current or former elected officeholders and party officials. They are free to support any candidate for the nomination.

Wikipedia: Superdelegates

In short, they're the professionals. They're the people to whom power accrues in the system anyway. The Democratic Party, it seems to me, have just found a way to institutionalize, and perhaps quantify, that influence. According to that Wikipedia entry, which is unsourced on this particular issue, the superdelegates will make up about one-fifth of the total at the convention.

What that amounts to, of course, is that in a close primary election, like this one is turning out to be, they could be the folks deciding who gets the nomination. Why is that so bad?

First of all, as I already wrote, they are people who wield considerable influence within the party already. What's more, it's pretty clear at this point that the party members can't make up their collective mind who they want. If Obama was ahead 60-40 (or vice versa) then I could see being offended by this possibility. However, neither candidate is ahead now, when you assume there's even a one percent margin of error.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there's the question of who works for whom here. As I've already mentioned, at least once or twice, they're supposed to be working for us. If we want to be effective bosses, we need to give our employees at least a little say in how they have to do their jobs. I've certainly learned in my own work that you need to listen to the people who work for you, or who will be affected by whatever you mandate. They're the ones who have to carry it out, and if they say they don't see how they can do that, you'd better discuss it with them.

So while I'd rather see this determined by the party as a whole, I don't see any reason that it's less democratic when the 0.1% of the party who end up having to do much of the work decide an outcome, as opposed to 0.1% of the rest of the party. Call me crazy, but I think either way many of us won't be happy.

UPDATE (Feb. 17): Paul Lukasiak has an interesting take on this, as well. If I can sum it up, it's that if you count actual Democratic voters who voted in the primaries so far, Hillary Clinton is ahead in the popular vote.

UPDATE 2: Via TPM Election Central, Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean is quoted:

The Democratic National Committee has given me what appears to be Howard Dean's most extensive and detailed answer to date on the role of super-delegates amid the ongoing battle between Hillary and Obama for their support.

Dean's verdict: "Their role is to exercise their best judgment in the interests of the nation and of the Democratic Party."

Howard Dean On Super-Delegates: "Their role is to exercise their best judgment"

If they're not going to use their judgement, why have them?

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