Politics & Policy

Superdelegate 101

A primer for Democratic-party watchers.

Political historian Alvin Felzenberg took some questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez in the run-up to the Potomac Primary, which is expected to put Barack Obama further ahead of former “inevitable” nominee Hillary Clinton. She is still a woman with a plan, Felzenberg warns.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is a “superdelegate” in the Democratic party?

Alvin Felzenberg: A superdelegate is a person appointed to state delegations after voters have chosen among delegates to Democratic conventions in primary elections. While most elected delegates have pledged to support a specific candidate on the first ballot, some run on “uncommitted slates.” Superdelegates comprise approximately 20 percent of the number of delegates necessary to designate a presidential nominee. After the chaos that ensued at the Democratic national convention in Chicago (both inside the hall and out) and the circus activists committed to peacenik George McGovern put on in 1972, pressure arose within the party to designate a certain number of grown-ups to maintain at least a semblance of decorum. Party elders became apoplectic when a college student committed to McGovern defeated Averell Harriman for delegate in the New York primary, a McGovernite majority denied Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and his delegation seating at the convention, efforts by feminists to foist a Texas politician Cissy Farenthold onto McGovern’s ticket, delaying McGovern’s delivery of Bob Shrum’s prepared acceptance speech into the wee hours of the morning.

After a little-known peanut farmer from the state of Georgia by the name of Jimmy Carter won the nomination by taking advantage of rules that, for the first time allocated delegates on a proportional basis, party elders decided to take action. (“Jimmy Carter cannot be president,” proclaimed the same Averell Harriman. “I don’t know him.”) By 1984, Democrats decided that there would be a sufficient number of Harrimans at their convention even if voters decided otherwise. In the ensuing years, an increasing number of party big shots, eager to escape the embarrassment of having their neighbors reject them at the polls, opted to attend as superdelegates. These voter-shy delegates can be present and former officials, party donors, celebrities, or seasoned political operatives.

Lopez: How does one get to be a superdelegate?

Felzenberg: State delegations select the superdelegates. These are highly coveted spots. All who hold them come to them by virtue of a powerful sponsor or through the personal prestige they have developed over decades of service to the party or through their celebrity status.

Lopez: How was Joe Lieberman a superdelegate, even after getting dumped from the party?

Felzenberg: The Joe Lieberman story continues to fascinate. Even though a self-financed antiwar candidate, buoyed by what may well have been a once in a lifetime uptick in turnout on the part of liberal activists, managed to defeat Lieberman in the Connecticut senatorial primary in 2006, “fighting Joe” remains the favorite of most local and state officials and party regulars. These are the people who once made the Democratic party the voice of the middle class, those who aspired to enter the middle class, as well as Catholics, Jews, blacks, ethnic whites, and organized labor. (Reagan understood them well and got their votes.) They, and not Ned Lamont and the bloggers, tend to party affairs in Connecticut year in and year out. They control the party apparatus and name the superdelegates. (It was also they, together with a good number of Republicans, who worked to return Lieberman to the Senate by an overwhelming margin.)

Lieberman’s presence at the Democratic convention may prove especially significant. Having endorsed John McCain for president in Republican primaries (in which he could not vote), Senator Lieberman can be expected to be asked whether he intends to support the Democratic party’s presidential nominee in the fall election. If he says “no,” Lieberman can expect at least one of his tormentors on the Left to challenge his right to be a serve as a superdelegate. (National and state party rules require that those holding party posts pledge to support its nominees. Lieberman obviously did not do this in Connecticut.) How the senator answers this question can impact on the partisan lineup that currently runs the United States Senate. At present, because Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats, the Democrats control the Senate 51-49.

Six decades ago, after Wisconsin Republican Senator Robert La Follette bolted the GOP to wage a third- party campaign for president against incumbent Republican President Calvin Coolidge, the Republican senators voted to strip La Follette and the handful of senators who supported him of their seniority and their committee chairmanships. Were the Democrats to do the same this year, Lieberman could well opt to caucus with the Republicans. (This, in effect, would be a replay of the once Republican Jim Jeffords’s decision to caucus with Democrats in 2001.) If the Democrats opted not to press the issue in the midst of a presidential election, they would be admitting to themselves and to the world, what readers of this website and magazine already know — that they put no principle ahead of their lust for power. (No wonder Congress’s rating is as low as it is.)

[POST-PUBLICATION  CLARIFICATION: Lieberman has been stripped of his superdelegate status.]

Lopez: Why don’t Republicans have superdelegates?

Felzenberg: Republicans do not have superdelegates because they remain faithful to one old-fashioned conservative principle. They believe that, if one is to select presidential nominees after holding primaries with limited turnouts, those who bother to vote, and not invisible elders who presume to know better than voters, should determine presidential nominees. Republican-party rules provide for the appointment of three additional persons to a state delegation after they have been selected. These individuals enjoy the same rights and privileges of the other delegates. They number less than 200.

Lopez: Is there any doubt that Clinton will resort to superdelegates to defeat Obama?

Felzenberg: While both sides are making a run at the superdelegates, the Clintons, who have been in politics longer than Obama and are better acquainted with superdelegates, have had a head start. The more than 700 superdelegates, however, cannot be expected to vote as a bloc. One would assume that those active in politics will not want to vote against the wishes of their state delegations. Then again, because delegates are apportioned on a proportional basis, most delegations will be split. Superdelegates may then take their cues from their respective sponsors. Wild cards will be the celebrities. And, then there will be Joe Lieberman. (Hint: Obama declined to campaign against Lieberman in 2006 when asked. I cannot remember if his opponent was for Joe before she was against him or the other way around. I believe she backed Joe in the primary.)

Lopez: Does Obama have any recourse?

Felzenberg: Yes and he has already resorted to it. That light is being shed this early on those who prefer to operate in the shadows, only to grand appearances on the convention floor and in media trailers and sound booths, suggests that Obama has already put a powerful constituency he inherited from John McCain to work; the media.

Lopez: If Huckabee wins a few more, does McCain have a convention headache on his hands?

Felzenberg: I doubt that Huckabee will pose serious problems for McCain at the convention. McCain, however, needs to pay heed to whom his surrogates and state party leaders select to serve as McCain delegates. The identities of all those delegates is not decided on the day every state holds its primary. Usually delegates are bound to vote for the candidate they were selected or elected to represent on the first ballot only. They do not pledge (nor are they bound) to follow their candidate’s lead when they vote to resolve platform disputes and credentials challenges or to adopt rules.

In the name of party unity, McCain may well want to draw to his side people who had previously worked on behalf of candidates who have already withdrawn from the race. He should ask himself, however, at whose direction hodgepodge delegations allegedly committed to him will vote on these and other secondary questions. And what would they do in the event that the convention went beyond one ballot. In deciding whom he wants to represent him when the rolls are called, McCain should take his cue from the Kennedys. He needs to have diehard loyalists in every seat that is his.

Lopez: What would you be advising Obama right now if he asked?

Felzenberg: I would tell advise him to let his opposition know that — now that their planned superdelegate caper has been exposed — he and his supporters will not stand for any attempt to block his nomination by seating phantom delegations from Michigan and Florida. (Note: Delegates pledged to Obama on the first ballot will be free to vote with the Clinton forces in deciding this. Therefore, Obama should read the above advice for McCain.)

At some point — and soon — he will need to “talk sense to the American people” (thank you, Adlai) and tell them why he wants to be their president. He also needs to present them with a picture of what kind of country he wants to see at the end of four or eight years of an Obama administration. Every president Obama has cited to date — Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy, and (thank you, Barack) Reagan did this, and early. What is he waiting for?

Finally, with the media (and especially MSNBC) acting in the role of Obama’s Bill Clinton, Obama needs to take a page from the book of Hillary and rein it in. (He had the perfect chance when it went after Chelsea, but he let the moment pass.)

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