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“Superdelegates” and the US election

Godfrey Hodgson
25 February 2008

Those who practice and those who report American politics have - almost overnight - woken up to the existence of a group of people called "superdelegates". There may be no such official category in the Democratic Party rulebook - the official term is "delegates selected under party rule 9A" - but the political buzzword conveys the point: the group has the potential to play a decisive role in the outcome for the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats' presidential nomination.

Also in openDemocracy on the United States election:

Laurie L Putnam, "Employment opportunity: President, United States of America" (4 February 2008)

Anthony Barnett, "Taking Obama seriously" (6 February 2008)

The Democratic Party as a whole is aware as never before of the possibility that these folks - individually distinguished but collectively obscure - could decide its candidate for the 2008 presidential election at the party convention in Denver, Colorado on 25-28 August 2008.

There are just under 800 of them, almost one-fifth of the delegates. They include forty-eight members of the Senate, 221 members of the House of Representatives, thirty-one Democratic state governors, twenty-two "distinguished leaders", 398 Democratic National Committee (DNC) members, and seventy-five "add-on delegates" (yet to be decided). The Democratic Party's official rules do not use the term "superdelegate". The formal description (in Rule 9A) is "party leaders and elected officials".

Suddenly, too, the superdelegates themselves are startled, and in many cases embarrassed, to realise how urgently they are now being courted by both the Clinton and Obama campaigns, and how important they might become.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969).Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), and A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffiars, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles on American politics:

"The next big issue: inequality in America" (13 September 2006)

"America against itself" (19 February 2007)

"Democracy in America: the money trap" (27 March 2007)

"Queen Elizabeth meets President George" (9 May 2007)

"The politics of justice" (9 July 2007)

"The United States: democracy in trouble" (30 September 2007)

"America in 2008: the next realignment?" (6 November 2007)

"Washington discovers Islamabad" (27 November 2007)

"The United States election: time for ‘change'" (10 January 2008)

"America's change election: reality or mirage?" (11 February 2008) Here is how the Democratic Party got into what could become so serious a pickle as to cause them to lose the election to the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona.

The caucus-primary catch-up

In the Progressive era in the early 20th century, primary elections were introduced by many states. The motive was to do away with the bad old system by which a state's delegates to the national nominating convention were chosen in a "smoke-filled room" by party hacks like the Irish saloon-keepers of Tammany Hall who ran the Democratic Party in New York and their equivalents in Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

Between 1920 and 1960, primaries came to seem a slightly dated fad of "Goo-goos", tiresome devotees of "good government". But they were suddenly revived as a result of the political needs of a politician, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who combined in his person and political provenance both liberal reform and Irish city politics of the old school.

Kennedy's problem was that he was a Roman Catholic. No Catholic had ever won the presidency, and one attractive and popular candidate, former governor Alfred E Smith of New York, the "happy warrior", had lost the nomination in 1924 and then, when nominated in 1928, lost the election itself in large part precisely because he was a Catholic.

The device hit upon by Kennedy and his political advisers, including his father, Joseph P Kennedy, Lawrence O'Brien and Kenneth O'Donnell, was to enter the primary in the most Protestant state in the nation, West Virginia.

Kennedy won handsomely in West Virginia, proving his point that he could win support all over the country. As a result, primaries came back into fashion in the 1960s. The number of states and territories using them to choose their delegates to the convention rose from sixteen to thirty-nine in 2008.

Then, the run-up to the 1976 election, another candidate had the opposite problem. Jimmy Carter of Georgia, a southern Baptist by birth, speech and personal commitment, needed to prove that he too could attract votes everywhere in the nation. His advisers came up with the idea of using the all but moribund "county caucus" system in Iowa for the purpose.

In the past the Iowa caucuses were quiet affairs in which at most a few dozen earnest Democrats met in churches or private homes in each of the state's counties to hammer out their choice of delegates. The Carter campaign treated this homespun process as an approximate equivalent to a primary. Carter won only 27.6% of those who voted, themselves only 10% of the state's Democrats. But it was enough for Carter to claim that he had been approved in a democratic as well as Democratic process, and he went on to be chosen as the party's candidate. Henceforth caucuses, once seen as the antithesis of primaries, were treated by the media as their equivalents.

The road from hope

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party had discovered in another field that the solution to a previous problem could become a problem in its turn.

In 1968, many Democrats saw their party as controlled by cunning, essentially conservative "pols" like mayor Richard J Daley of Chicago (whose policemen beat the daylights out of radical protesters at the Democratic Party's convention in that year) and comparable power-brokers in big eastern cities, in the south and in the big unions. The "Roosevelt coalition" that had carried out the New Deal in the 1930s, it seemed to many young radicals, had turned into a hidebound, even corrupt system not much better than the old Republican ascendancy of Mark Hanna and suchlike representatives of big business in the age of the "robber barons".

To remedy that perception, Democratic party chair Senator Fred Harris set up a commission, chaired by Senator George McGovern and Congressman Donald Fraser. It reported in 1971 that the party convention must include minimum proportions of delegates who were young, or women, or black.

As a result, at the Democratic nominating convention of 1972 in Miami Beach, McGovern himself was elected. Many staunch and powerful party and especially union leaders who would normally have expected to be members were not present. They were not pleased. And when McGovern was swept away by Richard Nixon in the presidential election of 1972, a movement began to recall the party's traditional leaders.

Rule 9A was passed after Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980. In 1984, Walter "Fritz" Mondale defeated Gary Hart for the Democratic nomination with the help of the new superdelegate vote. Still, the potentially decisive role of these elder statesmen and women received little attention until "super Tuesday" on 5 February 2008, when it dawned on politicians and political reporters alike that this large group of delegates might be in a position to decide the nomination.

At that point, Senator Clinton was comfortably ahead of Senator Obama in the preference of the superdelegates. But superdelegates - unlike delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses - were neither formally pledged to one candidate or another, nor even morally obliged to do so; rather, they were free to make an independent judgment and, as some of them pointed out, arguably duty bound to vote for the candidate they thought would make the best president. In effect, a new primary, almost twice the size of California, had come into existence.

Most of the superdelegates are all too aware of the damage it could do to their party's prospects in November if the preferences of the voters had been outweighed by the votes of office-holders and professional backstage politicians like the members of the Democratic National Committee. Senator Obama was quick to turn this point to his advantage. At the candidates' debate in Austin, Texas on 21 February he said "the American people are tired of politics that is dominated by the powerful, by the connected". It is hard for Senator Clinton to deny that she is "connected".

To be conscious of a danger however, scarcely removes it. The Democratic Party as a whole is being forced to contemplate the possibility that the superdelegates - individually distinguished but collectively obscure - could decide its candidate for the presidential election at the party convention in Denver, Colorado on 25-28 August 2008. To have reached this point is confirmation that in this respect, as in others, the Democrats are still to some extent the prisoners of the fierce cultural and ideological struggles of forty years ago.

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