U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas is one of the special ones. Harold M. Ickes, a law firm board chairman and former deputy chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton, is another. Clinton himself is one of them, as are Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Vice President Joe Biden and political strategist Donna Brazile.
All those Democrats share membership in an elite group of 714 delegates anointed with special powers — superpowers — over the outcome of the presidential race. They’re unelected superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention, whose support for a particular candidate carries the sort of weight otherwise awarded on the basis of state party primary vote outcomes. They can even change their minds.
And their existence is complicating the race for the Democratic nomination by giving a heavy advantage to party insider Hillary Clinton.
The major story this election cycle has been the headache that the popular, wild-card candidacy of Donald Trump is giving the Republican Party. But an equally interesting tension is shaping up in the other party over superdelegates, which the Republicans don’t have. Bernie Sanders, representing the left side of the party, is proving a tougher competitor than anyone expected, chalking up wins in unexpected states like New Hampshire and Michigan, as enthusiasm for his anti-corporate message soars among young and insurgent Democrats.
But because of Clinton’s heavy advantage with party superdelegates, Sanders has a huge disadvantage getting the requisite delegate count. Heading into Tuesday, Clinton had 1,235 delegates, 467 of which were superdelegates. Sanders had 580, including 26 superdelegates. Without the superdelegates, it would be a much closer race toward the total of 2,383 it takes to win the nomination.
The superdelegate system gives an inherent advantage to political insiders and party activists, which Sanders is not. Some might say that’s the price he pays for being late to join the Democratic Party. But it’s really not about what’s good or bad for Sanders. It’s about the electorate.
Our electoral system is structurally skewed in favor of two political parties rather than the will of the people. And the superdelegate advantage is kind of like the golf course advantage women in the business and professional world have long argued they lose out on to men. Much networking happens on the golf course, where women spend less time. In fact, Democrat Susan Estrich of Massachusetts, in a memo to a Democratic Party commission considering the change in 1981, argued against creating superdelegates as they would be overwhelmingly white and male. On the other hand, it was argued that having a strong affirmative action program within the party (i.e. minorities and women) to speak for their constituencies would promote pluralism among superdelegates. It just depends on what group you consider underrepresented.
Asked how he could make up the delegate gap with Clinton during the Democratic debate in Miami, Sanders said he’d try to persuade superdelegates he has a better chance of beating Trump in the general election. But the delegate math also gives Clinton a presumptive advantage in the public mind, which recently led a frustrated Sanders supporter to call on the news media to differentiate, in reports about delegate vote counts, how many were won in primaries versus with superdelegates.
It does seem ironic that in America, where all are supposed to created equal, some Democratic voters are given greater power over an election outcome. The clear message from voters to both parties this year is that they want someone who isn’t beholden to the party machinery or orthodoxies.
The superdelegate system was implemented in 1982 by a Commission on Presidential Nominations, following the electoral trouncing of former President Jimmy Carter by Ronald Reagan. It was seen as a way for experienced party officials to unify insurgent and mainstream elements of the party without having to be elected. It followed a convention-floor fight between Carter and Sen. Edward Kennedy. But the seeds were planted after the divided 1968 Democratic National Convention, when backroom deals resulted in the party nominating Hubert Humphrey to face off against Richard Nixon — and losing. That year, momentum was with anti-war Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy and the late Robert Kennedy.
In 1972 the party again put its support behind the establishment candidate, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, over antiwar Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, who won the nomination with the backing of party outsiders. He lost the general election to Nixon.
One rationale for the change was nominating a candidate who could win — but at the expense of activists such as, at the time, those for gay rights.
So now we have a self-described socialist who’s lighting a fire under young and first-time voters, running against a qualified, experienced former first lady, senator and secretary of state. Though Clinton has the establishment’s backing, in another year, she might be considered the insurgent. The point is that notions of mainstream and insurgent, electable and unelectable are relative, and instead of skewing the outcome with such presumptions, the party should change its rules for the future and let voters decide.
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Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at [email protected]