Politics & Policy

Super-Delegates in Smoke-Filled Rooms

What the Democratic process is really likely to look like.

The prospect that Hillary Clinton’s campaign will continue until the final primary (Puerto Rico on June 1) is inspiring columnists and bloggers to speculate about how the super-delegates are going to choose between their party’s two competing presidential candidates. We all know by now that these elected officials and other Democratic-party heavyweights have about 20 percent of the votes at the Democratic convention, which is the decisive bloc when each of the candidates will arrive in Denver with about 40 percent of the pledged delegates. But we are not bracing ourselves for the spectacle that may unfold in coming months.

So far, commentators are wondering whether super-delegates will vote on the basis of their calculations as to whether Obama or Clinton has a better chance of winning in November, or whether instead they will be swayed by moral claims concerning which candidate won more pledged delegates or more popular votes. In scenario #1, super-delegates decide on the basis of the collective interest of the Democratic party. In scenario #2, they will ponder issues of fairness. Both scenarios suggest that we can expect a high-minded rhetorical discussion, either about the candidates’ relative merits or about what’s fair. Discussions like that could easily take place in public. And either one could be wrapped up fairly quickly, before summer officially begins.

But what if neither of these is the story? Experience suggests that politicos are more prone to acting on the very different motive: their own private or parochial self-interest. This has two consequences. First, it means that politics in the Democratic party in coming months is likely to be dominated by shameless bargaining, of a kind that has to be transacted in private, not in public. Second, because super-delegates’ decisions can be swayed right up until they are cast, there is every reason for the bargaining to go on until the convention, which doesn’t open until August 25.

If that’s right, what role will fairness and collective interest play? Talk of morality will be plentiful, but the fact is that every super-delegate can always find a way to justify whichever vote they cast. Each super-delegate’s best guess about which candidate would be likelier to beat John McCain should matter more, because you’d rather be owed a favor by someone who ends up in the White House than by someone who doesn’t. But if history is any guide, unpledged delegates will be just as interested in small-bore deals that can help them reward key backers and donors in their individual districts, that can position them for a higher office in 2010 or 2012, or that can get them plum committee assignments that are valuable no matter who wins or loses the presidency.

This is nothing new. Such cynical vote-hunting among professional politicos is what used to take place at party conventions before primaries tied delegates’ hands. And it is what happens when members of Congress vote in leadership contests and, for that matter, when they vote on everyday legislation. In these contexts, horse-trading and threat-making is often small-minded, even grubby, and the principals try to sway votes right up to the last possible minute.

Before primaries became important, a presidential aspirant could always count on some convention delegates from the start, for instance because of ideological rapport. But the candidates had to appeal to the remaining delegates with charm, assurances of electability, arm-twisting, and more personal and political promises than they could ever deliver, ranging from job-patronage to spending commitments. The participants knew this sausage-making was too distasteful for public consumption, so it inspired indirect communications and secret meetings — and frequent public declarations that private interests played no role whatsoever in their decision-making.

Clinton and Obama, too, start the hunt with many super-delegates already in their corners, whether because of personal affinities, identity politics, or other factors. And sophisticated modern polling will streamline calculations about electability. But from there on, bare-knuckled bargaining will be the norm. Super-delegates will carry on in public about fairness and the good of the party, and perhaps even conduct “listening tours” among their constituents. But on cell phones and behind closed doors, they will be demanding goodies from, and suffering arm-twisting by, each candidate and their most powerful allies. Because every super-delegate can renege on their promises until they cast their votes, there’s a decent chance that neither campaign will stop trying to sway votes right up until they are cast.

Who will have the upper hand? Clinton’s war chest of bargaining chips has suffered. Even a few months ago, many Democrats would have grabbed at having Bill Clinton campaign for their next reelection. Today, that might mean a lot less than a promise that Obama will cut an ad for you. Clinton’s donor network has proven remarkably resilient in the face of Obama’s fundraising juggernaut, but it’s Obama who is the juggernaut. And if Nancy Pelosi backs Obama, his campaign can bargain with a pile of perks and promises in the House. On the other hand, the Clintons have been networking among Democrats nationwide for the past twenty years. In smoke-filled rooms, as much as in voting booths, this is no time to count them out.

We have a handy symbol for all of this. In 1993, freshman Representative Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania voted for Bill Clinton’s budget plans only on the condition that he personally participate in a conference on deficit-reduction to be held in her district. In all fairness, it’s not clear whether she personally opposed the bill but was bought off with this offer, or whether she favored it but thought the side payment would help her assuage her conservative suburban constituents. And that’s the point: her personal leanings didn’t matter. A trade was required to secure her vote, the deal was struck (even if it didn’t save her seat in the end), and she voted for the bill. Many of the deals that will be struck between now and August will be just as parochial. The pity is that most of them will be struck in private. Which will allow everyone involved to insist that they’re above that sort of thing.

– Gerard Alexander is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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