The Revolt of the Superdelegates?

Categories: Campaign 2008


Barack Obama’s is locked in a virtual tie for convention delegates with slim delegate lead over Hillary Clinton, but Democratic Party rules could still shut him out of the presidential nomination despite his strong performance in the primaries.

At issue are so-called “superdelegates,” former and current elected officials and other Democratic power-players who are appointed as delegates to the party’s national convention and can choose their preferred candidate with no regard for how their state has voted. New York’s superdelegates include, among others, former President Bill Clinton, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and every Democratic member of the State’s congressional delegation.

Within the primary voting system Obama has put together a small lead over Clinton, with 635 delegates compared to her 630, according to CNN, though other counts vary. But Clinton has maintained a strong majority of those superdelegates that have made their official pledge, and leads Obama 783-709 when those numbers are factored in (other superdelegate counts give Clinton a larger lead.)

Obama is well aware of the disparity and has sent a message to the Democratic establishment on those superdelegates, stating that they "would have to think long and hard about how they approach the nomination when the people they claim to represent have said, 'Obama's our guy.'" Obama’s message is clear: do not subvert the will of the people.

The superdelegate system used by the Democrats was put into effect during the 1970’s, as a means for party officials to maintain their influence in the face of reforms that arose from the 1972 presidential campaign of former senator and liberal stalwart George McGovern, said Tom De Luca ,a professor of political science at Fordham University.

The superdelegates are bound to nothing but their own opinions, said De Luca, and make up a strong 20 percent of the total Democratic delegate count of 4,049. Should Clinton’s lead among superdelegates vault her to the nomination, despite her defeat to Obama at the hands of the people, it could mean trouble for Democrats in November.

“I think it would be very, very bad for the Democrats,” said De Luca. “It might really demobilize some of the Obama constituency in the November election, which could well be very close.”

Harlem State Senator Bill Perkins was the first New York elected official to forsake his hometown senator and endorse Obama’s campaign, and he too is concerned that the will of the people could be cast aside at the convention, all in the name of party politics. Obama’s campaign is one of hope, said Perkins, and those hopes could be dashed by the superdelegate system, shutting Obama out of his rightful nomination “not on the basis of merit.”

“When you see a situation that has the potential to reverse that, by virtue of some sort of undemocratic, backroom machinations, it would be shameful,” said Perkins. “Worse than that, the agenda for change that everybody is singing now thanks to Obama would have a sour note.”

As a check on potential disaster the superdelegate system does have its purpose, said De Luca. It gives party insiders the ability to control a maverick candidate, preventing him or her from seizing the nomination and doing potential harm to the party in November. But while Obama might not fit the preconceived notion of a Democratic insider he is certainly no radical, and a potential defeat engineered by backroom party politics would leave a bad taste in the collective mouths of his energized supporters.

“Obama’s an outsider in a sense, but he’s not Dennis Kucinich,” said De Luca. “I’m not going to say it would be devastating, but I think that would have a very bad impact on Clinton’s ability to mobilize Obama’s supporters in the general election.”

Both De Luca and Perkins agreed that, should Obama lose the nomination only because he lacks a majority of superdelegates, it would put a lot of pressure on the Democratic Party to eliminate the superdelegate system in its entirety. De Luca did see several ways out for the Democrats, noting first that more than half of the superdelegates have not yet committed to any particular candidate, giving them time to gauge Obama and Clinton’s momentum and make a decision based on that, giving Obama a chance to minimize Clinton’s superdelegate lead.

De Luca also pointed out that while it might sting a bit, a Clinton victory propelled by a superdelegate majority will not be crippling to the party is Obama’s delegate lead is only a handful of votes, as it stands today. If Obama had a large delegate lead and was pushed out by superdelegates, it would cause a figurative riot at the convention, said De Luca.

“It would be a bad blow for the party,” said De Luca, “and a lot of the people who got involved because of the Obama campaign would be very bitter about it.”

Perkins certainly would be. “We can’t have a democracy that people don’t have faith in, particularly in terms of our party processes,” he said.


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