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The Democratic Party’s superdelegates may wind up choosing the party’s candidate and thus potentially our nation’s next president. Yet, perhaps surprisingly for a decision of such importance, the roles and duties of these nearly 800 delegates are caught up in confusion and debate. Candidate Barack Obama says superdelegates should track their constituents’ preferences. They are, Obama argues, agents for their principals, the voters of the Democratic Party. Candidate Hillary Clinton, by contrast, claims that superdelegates are trustees of the Democratic Party — and should do whatever they think is right and best for the party. According to traditional theories of political representation, representatives can serve as agents or as trustees. As agents, they would be bound by what they perceive to be constituent preferences. As trustees, they would be bound by their own discretionary opinion about what is right for the people at large. Both Obama and Clinton are wrong in their either/or conception of superdelegacy because superdelegates are neither political agents nor trustees. Rather, superdelegates must take seriously aspects of both roles. Of course, this leads to understandable confusion among superdelegates themselves about how to approach their task. It is no wonder that Scott Brennan, the Iowa Democratic chairman, expressed recently that he has no guidelines about how to behave as a superdelegate. Here’s some guidance the superdelegates sorely need. A COUNCIL OF SAGES In the Democratic nominating process, a “superdelegate” is actually a radical misnomer. The institutional design surrounding the race for the nomination was specifically created after the 1980 presidential election to enable party leaders to veer from the wishes of registered voters who vote in primary elections. Typically, a very small minority of registered party members bother to vote in primaries anyway. Thus, it should be no surprise that at least 21 governors and members of Congress support Clinton even though their states and districts voted for Obama. Meanwhile, 14 governors and members of Congress are supporting Obama even though their states and districts voted for Clinton. How should we evaluate these divergences from constituent preference? Although the recent change of heart in Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, directing him to cast his superdelegate vote for Obama on account of his constituents’ preferences, may sound democratic (small d), there are problems with this seemingly attractive model of how a superdelegate should vote. First, the superdelegate system was designed to enable superdelegates to avoid a pure democracy within the party. Having seen their party’s voters nominate people who got clobbered in the general election (remember George McGovern in 1972?), the party understood that it wanted to moderate the potentially outlying preferences of its primary voters. Hence, the superdelegate system implemented in 1982: a council of sages to help save Democrats from themselves. Accordingly, it may be a mistake for Lewis to think of himself as a political agent when acting as a superdelegate. The institutional design looks like it was giving him authority in his individual capacity or his capacity as a party leader, not in his representative capacity. Assuming, that is, that such a distinction can be maintained. After all, many superdelegates have a vote only because voters put that person into office. CHANGING MINDS Second, there is a temporal problem. Voters vacillate throughout the nominating cycle. Lewis’ voters, for example, could change their minds between Clinton and Obama by the time he has to cast his ballot at the nominating convention. However unlikely this shift might be in the case of Lewis’ district, it is a larger problem with the agency view Obama endorses: that superdelegates must pony up their votes to whomever won the primary election among their constituents. Third, even putting the temporal problem to one side, it would seem somewhat relevant how close the primary election was between Obama and Clinton in any given superdelegate’s district — and whether other candidates were on the ballot. A blowout of 70/30 percent for one candidate might leave a superdelegate little discretion; a 50/49/1 split (with 1 percent voting for, say, John Edwards) may be within a margin of error that would free a superdelegate to follow his or her own political judgment, as the Clinton camp urges upon all superdelegates, regardless of vote totals. ALL CONSTITUENTS Significantly, there are two categories of superdelegates: sitting elected officeholders with actual geographically circumscribed constituencies and party elders like Al Gore and Walter Mondale whose constituency is of a different spatial and temporal variety. And this difference matters to their duties. For starters, those with elected constituencies need to cast their vote pursuant to an iterative and interactive process that engages their constituents over time. The effort should be to discern best their constituents’ true and abiding nominee preferences over the course of the primary season. Superdelegates who pledge their support in advance, who publicly endorse one candidate over another before the campaign and elections have run their course, are shirking certain of their fundamental duties — to listen, mull, and respond to constituent expressions of preference over the entire campaign. Pre-commitment well before the convention disables constituents from providing further input as they learn more about the candidates. Further, the office-holding superdelegates, the district-bound or state-bound superdelegates represent all the citizens in their districts. As such, when these political leaders vote at the nominating convention for a Democratic nominee, they are accountable to Democrats, Republicans, independents, and non-voters. When members of Congress or governors take their oaths of office and assume their representative mantle, they pledge to represent all citizens of their districts or states, not only the voters who supported them or who are eligible to or actually vote in a Democratic primary. Superdelegates thus cannot evade their representative role in the presidential nominating process. Although the Democratic Party would undoubtedly prefer for superdelegates to behave only in the interests of Democrats, anyone whose political responsibilities include representing a geographical region must consider the views of all citizens, partisan affiliations notwithstanding. ELDERS LISTENING In contrast, the elders, the “super-duper” delegates, can function free of the restraints of direct constituent representation. They need to listen to the pulse of the party more generally and can ethically ignore independents and Republicans, if they so choose. The “super-duper” delegates cannot fully ignore the will of Democratic voters as expressed throughout the primaries — but they need to worry about electability, worry about how preferences may have shifted over time, and try to assess who would be a popular vote winner among Democrats at the time of the nominating convention. Adding up all the historical votes that have been cast thus far would be altogether inadequate. That is, the well-meaning “super-duper” delegates — such as California’s Christine Pelosi — who want to follow the election returns and have “democracy” in view will need to do more work than merely count votes from the past. And they, like their superdelegate colleagues who represent smaller geographical constituencies, certainly must not pre-commit to one candidate or another. In their role as party stewards, super-duper delegates must be responsive to registered party voter behavior and possessed of a prescient wisdom that can help bring their party’s values and expressed preferences to fruition. They must foster a truly collective will and place the interest of the party and national welfare over political opportunism. No delegate should act out of fear of comeuppance should his or her candidate lose the race, nor should any delegate act to win perquisites in an upcoming administration. The welfare of the party and expressed preferences of the party voters over time should carry the day, not a superdelegate’s calculation about how to best secure an appointment or curry favor in the next administration. These super-duper delegates, like the plain-vanilla superdelegates, must also embody the ideals of both trusteeship and agency — but to a purely Democratic constituency that extends throughout a patchwork of competing districts with sometimes competing interests. That, to be sure, is no easy task. But they are, after all, superdelegates. We all understand who superdelegate Bill Clinton will support. But for everyone else, it is reasonable to expect them to work hard — and not take the easy and mechanical courses suggested by both candidates.
David L. Ponet, a political scientist whose doctoral dissertation was about political representation in the United States, directs research at Public Insight in New York. Ethan J. Leib, author of Deliberative Democracy in America (2004) and co-editor of The Search for Deliberative Democracy in China (2006), is a professor of constitutional law and legislation at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

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