The Democratic primary contest is shaping up to be the closest since 1984. The campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are preparing for a delegate battle. If the race goes down to the wire, an elite contingent of superdelegates–unpledged party operatives and elected officials not chosen by primary voters–could play a decisive role, even though most voters don’t know they exist. How could the Democratic Party be so, well, undemocratic?
Rewind to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which showcased the undue influence of the party’s old guard. Big-city bosses like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley handed the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, despite Humphrey’s support for a deeply unpopular war and the fact that he hadn’t won a single primary. As Rick Perlstein recounts in his forthcoming book, Nixonland, Eugene McCarthy won 79 percent of the vote in the Pennsylvania primary but got less than 20 percent of the state’s delegates at the convention. The rest were picked by the party machine. The will of the voters was ignored at the convention, and protesters on the streets outside it were met with clubs and tear gas.
Despite the backroom double-dealing, supporters of McCarthy and Robert Kennedy were able to pass a rule at the convention mandating a study of how the party picked its nominee. This rather innocuous effort, initially led by Iowa Governor Harold Hughes, a popular liberal reformer, led to the McGovern Commission, whose 1970 report, Mandate for Reform, led to a sweeping revision of party politics, which greatly expanded the number of primaries and ensured that convention delegates were roughly proportional to primary vote results; drastically reduced the power of party officials to serve as delegates and dictate the choice of nominee; and mandated a greater role for rising forces within the party–young people, women, minorities. The new rules helped catapult two dark horses to the nomination, McGovern himself in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.
By 1980 the party establishment had seen enough. It struck back with a commission of its own, led by North Carolina Governor James Hunt. It returned power to elected officials and party regulars–the superdelegates, who will make up about 20 percent of the 4,049 delegates at the Democratic convention. They include all Democratic members of Congress and every governor, but roughly half of them are Democratic National Committee officials elected by state parties, who range from top party operatives to local city council members. Key interests in the party, like labor groups, can also name superdelegates. According to political scientist Rhodes Cook, superdelegates were created as a “firewall to blunt any party outsider that built up a head of steam in the primaries.”
That’s what happened in 1984, when Senator Gary Hart launched an insurgent challenge to front-runner Walter Mondale. Hart won sixteen state primaries and caucuses to Mondale’s ten, and barely lost the popular vote. Yet Mondale locked up virtually all the party’s 700 or so superdelegates even before the primary began. Hart likely would have lost anyway, but the superdelegates sealed his defeat. “I got almost none of them, because [Mondale] was considered inevitable,” Hart told me.
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The obvious beneficiary of the superdelegates this time around is another establishment favorite, Hillary Clinton. Before Super Tuesday, Obama had sixty-three pledged delegates, compared with Clinton’s forty-eight. But as we went to press Clinton had a huge advantage in superdelegates, 184 to ninety-five, according to CNN. “Many of the superdelegates were in and out of the Clinton White House, invited to dinners, have received contributions from Clinton allies,” says Hart, who has endorsed Obama. “There will be pressure brought to bear to cash in those chips.”
Clinton has a wealth of contacts to tap, in the party and in her campaign. There’s the former President himself, of course, and Clinton’s campaign chair, Terry McAuliffe, who ran the DNC from 2001 to 2005, and a top Clinton surrogate, Harold Ickes, who serves on the DNC’s influential rules committee. The Clintons are working hard to bring the large bloc of uncommitted superdelegates into the senator’s camp. “I know Hillary is calling superdelegates regularly, which is a smart play,” says Art Torres, California Democratic Party chair. Interviews with superdelegates in Alabama, California, Colorado and Massachusetts–a random sample of February 5 states–illustrate this close attention. After Ramona Martinez, a Denver city councilwoman, switched her support from Bill Richardson to Clinton, she received immediate thank-you calls from McAuliffe and Clinton adviser Ann Lewis. In Alabama “Hillary would get the majority of the superdelegates,” predicts state party chair Joe Turnham. “A lot of it is longstanding relationships. People go back to the 1980s with Bill Clinton, when he first came to Alabama.”
There’s often a disconnect between the choices of rank-and-file Democrats and the preferences of superdelegates. In Colorado, Martinez admits, “Obama has a lot more troops on the ground.” Obama is expected to do well in Alabama, whose African-American population matches South Carolina’s. Even so, the Obama campaign argues that the tally among superdelegates is closer than reported in the media–and that the so-called uncommitted delegates lean his way. “Bill and Hillary got what they could,” says a senior Obama campaign adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They picked the low- to-midhanging fruit. The rest of the superdelegates remain neutral or undecided and may be resistant to the Clinton pull.”
There’s disagreement within the party about how many of the 400-plus uncommitted superdelegates have yet to make up their minds. “There’s a lot of people claiming to be undecided,” says Pomona, California, mayor Norma Torres, a superdelegate who backs Obama. “I think by now they’ve decided, but they don’t want to say.” Superdelegates are notoriously fickle, and can swap candidates at any time. Before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, for example, Howard Dean enjoyed a commanding lead among superdelegates. But after his disappointing third-place finish, they jumped ship, rallying around the eventual nominee, John Kerry. The same thing could happen to Clinton if Obama wins enough primaries and establishment support. And with John Edwards out of the race, he could advise his superdelegates to switch their allegiance, presumably to Obama.
No matter what happens with the superdelegates this year, it’s unsettling to have a large bloc of party officials who are not answerable to the party’s electorate. “I certainly think their influence should be curtailed,” Hart says. In 1988 Jesse Jackson won the primary in Puerto Rico over Michael Dukakis. Yet a month later, Puerto Rico’s governor instructed his fifty-one delegates to back Dukakis. “This is clearly machine politics,” Jackson wrote then, “and should have nothing to do with the 1988 campaign.” The 2008 campaign has again exposed the undemocratic influence of the superdelegate elite. But just as the activists of ’68 pushed aside the party bosses, forty years later voters can demand that the party’s nominee reflect their choice.