The "Superdelegates": Always Intended to be Independent

If independent superdelegates now seem problematic after 26 years, then let the debate begin about eliminating them. But only after the convention - not before.
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There is certainly a valid concern expressed by those who fear that the 796 "superdelegates" to the August 2008 Democratic National Convention -- Democratic elected officials, party officials and VIPs - might make the difference in delivering the nomination to the candidate who wins fewer pledged delegates out of the primaries and caucuses. To some, such a result would seem "undemocratic."

But let's not rewrite history. When the superdelegates were first created by the Democratic National Committee in 1982, they were intended to be independent, able to vote for any candidate, regardless of the outcome of the primaries or caucuses in their own congressional districts or states.

I know, because I was a member of the DNC from Maryland in 1982 when the first superdelegates were created. I and many other DNC members initially had concerns about the concept.

One of the main reasons I and others changed our minds was the data on Democratic turnout since the 1972 party reforms mandating that all delegates be elected in primaries or caucuses.

That data showed that in primary elections, the turnout among Democrats was often well below 50 percent. And in caucus states, where voters had to show up at a particular time and place and wait up to several hours before voting, the turn out was often as small as 10%-20% or often much less.

That data raised a real concern as to how truly representative a convention elected by such a narrow band of base activists truly was. We noticed, for example, that at the 1980 convention there were few governors, members of Congress, and mayors who represented the broader electorate of voters in the Democratic Party and in the general election.

It did not seem entirely coincidental that the nominees since the Democratic Party reforms -- Senator George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter for reelection in 1980 -- suffered landslide defeats.

We were also reminded that before these reforms, the "smoke-filled rooms" of Democratic Party leaders had led to the nomination and election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. Not bad.

So we understood that there needed to be some adjustment. The compromise decision finally adopted after much debate was to permit a relatively small percentage of the convention of elected and party officials -- 20 percent -- to be independent delegates. That meant that four-out-of-five delegates then and now at the 2008 convention would be elected from primaries and caucuses.

The suggestion now being made by some that the original intention was for superdelegates merely to mirror the results of their respective congressional district primaries and caucuses, is nonsense. That would have been illogical. Why create them at all if that were the case?

Some superdelegates may prefer to wait until all the primaries and caucuses are over before making their minds up. Others have already decided, in conscience, that Senator Clinton or Senator Obama would make the strongest candidate and the best president. The rules that have been in place permit either decision.

But if independent superdelegates now seem problematic after 26 years to some people, then let the debate begin about eliminating them. But only after the 2008 Democratic Convention - not before.

There is one principle we learned as kids in schoolyards and on which all should agree, whether supporters of Senator Obama or Senator Clinton:

Don't change the rules in the middle of the game or, more accurately, don't game the rules to change the outcome.

Mr. Davis, a supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton, served as a Maryland Democratic National Committeeman from 1980-1992, and served as Special Counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98.

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