Superdelegates and the Rules of the Game

With the explosive news surrounding Reverend Jeremiah Wright this week, it is even more likely that the so-called superdelegates are going to have an important role in resolving the Democratic presidential nomination contest. The New York Times reported that one of these delegates in Washington State said the scandal "is beginning to reflect negatively on Senator Obama's campaign. I think he's handling it very well but I think it's almost impossible to make people feel comfortable about this." On the other hand, we have seen some superdelegates begin to speak in favor of Obama late this week, before the primaries are even over. Today, Joe Andrew, who served as the head of the DNC from 1999 to 2001, switched his support from Clinton to Obama saying that "I am convinced that the primary process has devolved to the point that it's now bad for the Democratic Party."

Some Democrats insist that these uncommitted delegates should vote for the person who wins the most pledged delegates. Otherwise, they say, the process would be unfair. "It would be a problem," warned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "for the party if the verdict would be something different than the public has decided." Other observers go so far as to warn that if the superdelegates make a choice that contradicts the pledged delegate count, chaos will ensue at the convention.

But according to the rules set by the Democratic Party in the 1980s, Democratic activists and journalists should back away from such arguments in order to create an environment where uncommitted delegates can make an independent choice. The choice can be to vote for the candidate with the most delegates or to vote for the other candidate. The rules say that is up to them. These might not be the best rules for the party or for our democracy -- there are very good arguments supporting the critics of the superdelegate system -- but these are the rules that the Democratic National Committee officially established.

Democrats created this group of uncommitted delegates after some members of the party were frustrated by the contentious primary fight between President Jimmy Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy in 1980. Kennedy's supporters did not like Carter, and Democrats remained divided going into the general election. The devastating loss of Senator George McGovern to President Richard Nixon in the 1972 election had also created concerns among Democrats as to whether the party reforms of the 1970s, which weakened the power of party bosses, needed to be modified for the electoral health of the party. Moreover, the Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Representative Gillis Long of Louisiana, lobbied for the change to give Congress a bigger role in the convention and thus avoid the gulf separating Congress and presidents who won through the post-reform nomination process. This had been a big problem when president Jimmy Carter clashed with a Democratic Congress that felt alienated from him.

Democrats established a commission in 1982 under Governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina to look into the issue. Hunt's commission designed a proposal that would authorize uncommitted Democrats to participate in the convention. The number they proposed was 30% of the delegates. The commission said they wanted to preserve the "traditional" role of the party which was a "mediating institution between citizens and government, as a guide to constituent and rational electoral choice, as a bond pulling the elements of government together for the achievement of positive purposes." The commission agreed that the party reforms of the 1970s had been beneficial by eliminating "secret caucuses, unpublicized procedures, closed slate-making, racial exclusions..." But they said, (the Democratic National Committee agreed in March 1982 without almost any debate), party leaders also should have some role in the selection of the presidential nominee.

Critics warned that this new system would create a class of unaccountable elites -- thus the term superdelegates which was introduced with derision. The proposal seemed like a throwback to the older era of smoke-filled convention halls that the 1970s reforms had intended to eliminate. In the end, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro brokered a deal that lowered the number of uncommitted delegates to 14 percent. The delegates included members of Congress as well as state and local party officials. This group was expanded over the years to include members of the Democratic National Committee, Governors, distinguished party leaders and a few others. The percentage of uncommitted delegates has increased to about twenty percent.

So that's how we ended up in the current situation. The frustration regarding the uncommitted delegates is similar to the anger many of Clinton's supporters feel about the insistence of Howard Dean and the Democratic National Committee to stick by the decision to discount Democratic voters in Florida and Michigan because the states violated the national party's rules on scheduling. Supporters of this decision argue that Clinton and Obama agreed to these rules, and now must live with them.

If this is the case, and the rules of the primary system are to be rigidly followed, then all Democrats should be prepared to support and encourage superdelegates to reach whatever decision they think best for the party. It's difficult to know which way their votes would go, although recent polls suggest a large number of superdelegates might stick with Obama, despite the recent week's events.

Whether we agree or disagree with the system created in 1982, this is how this game is played. Perhaps some delegates will decide to challenge those rules at the convention, as might very well happen with the Florida and Michigan delegations. That, of course, would be fair game. But unless the rules are changed, the uncommitted delegates of the party should have the opportunity to choose.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the co-editor of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Harvard University Press). He is currently writing a history of national security politics since World War II that will be published by Basic Books.