Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Democratic superdelegates and making of a Democratic super mess

Senator Clinton lost the race for elected delegates in February. Unlike the other candidates in the crowded (at that time) Democratic field she has refused to accept the inevitable and have the common decency to set aside her personal ambitions in favor of what is best for the party and the country. Her only hope is to damage Senator Obama to the point he no longer is a desirable candidate by the time the Democrats reach Denver in August. (Alternatively, she can hope to damage him enough and split the party so Obama loses in November leaving her in a strong position to run in 2012 against an elderly President McCain.) Senator Clinton cannot win with elected delegates so her hopes rest on the so-called superdelegates to overrule the voters and the plurality of elected delegates in her favor.

Under the party’s rules of proportional allocation of delegates and with only a handful of states left to hold primaries or caucuses neither candidate can achieve the majority needed to win the nomination with elected delegates alone (even though Senator Obama has an insurmountable lead in elected delegates). Therefore, the party’s superdelegates will eventually determine the winner. These are delegates given automatic delegate status by the Democratic National Committee. It includes sitting Democratic Senators, Representatives and Governors. The reasoning for their super status is that they are the officials who will run on the same ticket as the Democratic presidential nominee and will then work with the newly elected Democratic President. These super delegates are well known to the public, the public elected them and they will remain accountable to the public. The designation of superdelegate status to these elected representatives makes all the sense in the world. As of this writing they are roughly evenly split in their support for the candidates with 100 backing Senator Clinton, 106 for Senator Obama and 92 undecided.

The other large group of supers – slightly over half - is members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). (This includes two members of the College Young Democrats who have been advertising on YouTube soliciting advice on how they should vote.) The reasoning for the DNC special status is a little murky. They achieved membership as members of the DNC, the ultimate party insiders, by election from other party insiders. They are essentially unknown to the public and are not accountable to the public. They are responsible for devising and approving the nomination system we have all been suffering through. Since they were writing the rules they were in a position to reward themselves with special super status and did so. Thus they are superdelegates and this year may be the group that is responsible for who the candidate will be. Being party insiders they tend to favor the establishment candidate. It is among this group that Senator Clinton hopes will rally to her. So far she leads with commitments from 143 DNC supers while 119 are backing Senator Obama and 136 remain uncommitted.

Regardless of their makeup, the failure of superdelegates to come out of the dark and commit themselves – 239 remain uncommitted as of this writing – is the engine keeping this race alive and thus denying the Democrats a nominee with time to unite the party and focus on the November election.

The Jed Report has this assessment of the superdelegates:

For most of this campaign, the Democratic Party has been unified by optimism that our eventual nominee would trounce the Republican candidate in November, 2008. That began to change towards the end of February, when the contest between Senators Clinton and Obama began to turn sharply negative.

The media and the Clinton campaign deserve their share of blame for this. And Obama is not perfect, either. But the people who deserve the most blame are the superdelegates, for it is their indecision that has made this mess possible in the first place.

Since late February, it has been clear that the Clinton campaign's only hope for victory rested in their hands. Over the past two months, the sole uncertainty about the campaign has been whether or not superdelegates will stage a coup against the voters.

At any point during the last two months, superdelegates could have made it clear that they would support the will of voters. Instead, by declaring their indecision, they provided Clinton with a new rationale for her campaign. Effectively, they encouraged her coup attempt. It was if they said to her: if you can prove to us that Barack Obama is unelectable, we will overturn the judgment of voters.

It is now clear just how foolish and unwise the superdelegates were for offering Clinton such a destructive path to the nomination, for she has tried to meet it with unrestrained vigor. Two months later, a party that was once unified is now divided. The septuagenarian Republican presidential candidate who devised the Iraq war strategy and wants to stay there for one hundred years is leading or tied in most polls.

And the ultimate blame for making this possible rests with the very people who are supposed to lead the Democratic Party: the superdelegates.

It's important to remember the state of the campaign in late February. At that point, 70% of the pledged delegates had been chosen. Barack Obama had 1,210 pledged delegates and Clinton had 1,044, a lead of 166. It was clear that Obama's pledged delegate lead was insurmountable.

Now, after two months of nastiness on the campaign trail, voters have selected another another 573 pledged delegates, 20% of the total. With just 10% remaining, the pledged delegate margin is virtually identical heading into May as it was in late February: Obama leads by 161. (He has has 1,494 and Clinton has 1,333.)

(I focus on pledged delegates because they are the only way to to measure the will of voters. The "popular vote" is just as misleading the number of states won. Moreover, delegates select the nominee -- 2,024 of them, to be exact.)

The point is clear: Hillary Clinton took the superdelegates up on their irresponsible challenge and tried to prove that Obama is unelectable. Meanwhile, Obama could not respond as forcefully to Clinton as he would have to John McCain. He knew that unlike Clinton, he had to worry about unifying the party after her superdelegate gambit. He couldn't afford to attack her the way she attacked him.

Moreover, the media created a new Clinton-friendly narrative in order to support a continued campaign. Between Clinton's attacks, his measured response, and the media's pile-on, Obama endured his worst two-month stretch of the campaign so far. Making matters more difficult, the key primaries were on Hillary Clinton's home turf.

Yet through it all, Barack Obama won just five fewer delegates than Clinton. In short, nothing much changed. Hillary Clinton failed in her mission. And now, with just 408 delegates left to be chosen, the superdelegates remain sidelined. They remain the only uncertainty left in this campaign.

It is certain that Barack Obama will end up with a solid majority of pledged delegates. It is also certain that when the voting is done, he'll need just 30% of the undecided superdelegates to vote for him at the convention. And it's overwhelmingly likely that he will win those superdelegates.

Until the superdelegates formally make their views known, however, there will be uncertainty. And as long as that uncertainty remains, the media and the Clinton campaign will be able to exploit it -- further dividing the Democratic Party.

For two months, the superdelegates have had all the information they needed to make a decision. Yet they continue to dither about. The media and the Clinton campaign do deserve blame for exploiting the environment of uncertainty. But the environment was created by the superdelegates, and for that we have nobody to blame but the superdelegates themselves.

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