Friday, February 08, 2008

Super Delegates, Not Super Tuesday, May Settle Dem Nomination

Super Delegates, Not Super Tuesday, May Settle Dem Nomination

Faster than a speeding ballot! More powerful than a frontloaded primary calendar! Able to leap a deadlocked convention in a single bound! It's the suuuuuuperdelegates!

The Democratic Party flipped a coin on Super Tuesday, and it landed on its edge. With Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seemingly evenly matched, and no obvious advantage ahead for either, the nomination fight is turning in a direction it's never gone before. In past years they've simply gotten on the bandwagon at the right time, but in 2008 the Democratic party leaders called "superdelegates" may determine the nomination.

Ther term "superdelegate" doesn't leap out of any Democratic rules book; it's a nickname tacked on by us media types. Officially, they're called "Party Leader and Elected Official Delegates" or PLEO's. You're right; "superdelegate" does sound snazzier.

The practice of making some party leaders automatic delegates is under attack in some quarters as undemocratic and unDemocratic. "A superdelegate has the power of 153,636 regular people. The only way this should be allowed is if the superdelegate is created Frankenstein-style from pieces of 153,636 citizens, which would be both awesome and representative," wrote blogger Padded Rooms. "With a name like 'superdelegate', they should be able to fight crime too."

But to call the superdelegates "unelected" is a bit misleading because they are, in fact, elected. Not as delegates, but as public and party officials. The superdelegate designation is a perk of the job, so to speak.

The superdelegates are a post-reform... well, un-reform. After the 1968 convention, where the battle for the nomination literally became a battle in the streets of Chicago, the Democratic party appointed a commission headed by George McGovern to rewrite the nomination rules and open the process up.. Those changes had several unintended consequences, one of which was Iowa's caucuses happening first.

Another unintended consequence was McGovern's nomination and the exclusion of many party leaders, who'd backed early 1972 frontrunner Ed Muskie, from the national convention. The definitive example was when an Illinois delegation led by Mayor Richard Daley the elder was unceremoniously tossed in favor of a McGovern delegation led by Jesse Jackson the elder.

After a couple of cycles, the Democrats decided they'd gone too far and that party leaders needed to be assured of a place at the table, and the superdelegate process began with the 1984 nomination season.

Superdelegates are technically uncommitted, in the sense that they're not bound by the same 15 percent viability math that governs all other Democratic caucus and convention apportionment. But they're real people with real opinions. Iowa has 11, and at the moment they split four for Clinton, three for Obama, and four uncommitted.

Some superdelegate categories are rare. Democratic former presidents are superdelegates for life (whether or not they are married to candidates), as are former vice presidents, House speakers, Democratic leaders of the House or Senate, and DNC chairs. There's no Iowans in these life-lord categories.

All sitting Democratic Senators -- yes, including the junior senators from Illinois and New York -- U.S. Representatives, and governors are superdelegates. There's an exception, under what's called the "Zell Miller rule," named for the Georgia "Democratic" Senator who endorsed George W. Bush in 2004. You do that, you lose your superdelegate seat, as Joe Lieberman has for endorsing John McCain.

In Iowa, Gov. Chet Culver and Rep. Dave Loebsack are backing Obama, while Rep. Leonard Boswell is with Clinton. Rep. Bruce Braley endorsed John Edwards and has not re-committed since Edwards' withdrawal, and Sen. Tom Harkin has stayed neutral.

Iowa's two elected members of the Democratic National Committee are also superdelegates. Richard Machacek of Winthrop was a John Edwards supporter, while Sandy Opstvedt of Story City is with Hillary Clinton.

The chair and vice chair of each state Democratic party are also members of the DNC, and thus superdelegates. Iowa Democratic Chair Scott Brennan has stayed neutral. Vice Chair Sarah Swisher had been with Edwards, but this week announced her support for Clinton.

Other key party leaders can be added as what's called "unpledged add-on delegates." In Iowa, those are State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald, an early Obama backer, and State Senate Majority leader Mike Gronstal, who's been placed in the Clinton camp.

The web site Democratic Convention Watch is providing an excellent overview of superdelegate commitments. After Super Tuesday, some on-line activists started encouraging people to contact the superdelegates to try to persuade them, but by Wednesday afternoon the Obama campaign was discouraging such self-starter action. "When it comes to winning the support of superdelegates, the best strategy is not to flood them with calls, letters, and emails," wrote Chris Hughes. "Oftentimes that can do more harm than help. The campaign has a very well-developed and focused plan to win over each one of these superdelegates' support. Please refrain from sending additional messages directly."

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