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He waltzed around the room with a lightness that belied his physical and political stature. It was late October 1984 in Nashville, the election was near, and this dance was that of an elected Democrat in Tennessee hoping to get away from the small fund-raising event before the vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, worked her way to him. The Mondale/Ferraro ticket was going down in flames, and he damn sure didn’t plan to go down with it. I was working for the campaign and nudged the hostess. She grabbed the pol before he reached the door: “Why, Billy Bob [not his real name], I don’t want you to leave without saying hello to Ms. Ferraro. And let’s have the photographer get a picture of the two of you together.” This local politician was my first exposure to a superdelegate. Now, 24 years later, the value and role of the Democrats’ superdelegates is being hotly debated. The party adopted the idea in 1982. Seven presidential elections have intervened. I’ve volunteered in five of them: Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Bill Bradley, and Barack Obama. Today, approximately 793 of the 4,000-plus convention votes (about 20 percent) will be from superdelegates. But the time has come to end the superdelegate dance and to separate spin from the reality. The 1982 changes have been a time bomb waiting to go off. Unless superdelegates find an objective standard for their votes, this could be yet another year the party explodes. BASTARDIZED PRODUCTS The superdelegates — technically “unpledged” delegates — are bastardized products of a convoluted process designed by committee. There are various spins for why the Democrats came up with the idea. One is that superdelegates are the professionals, the glue that holds the party together. The professionals, so the argument goes, own the party, so their votes are more important. A second argument is that superdelegate status is a reward for service to party loyalists. Put more bluntly, the governors, congressmen, senators, and party officials, who are entitled to go to the convention as superdelegates without being elected, will be miffed if it were any other way. A third spin is that these men and women are more deliberate, more sober in their judgment than delegates chosen in the primaries and caucuses. If they stick together, superdelegates can pretty much determine the nomination. A fourth, and commonly unstated, reason is that the superdelegates are like a reserve force that can prevent a bruising convention floor fight, the last thing the party needs if it is to win in November. None of the spins is persuasive. The glue rationale is one that Ferraro, of all people, recently advanced. She was on the commission that came up with the concept of superdelegates. She wrote in The New York Times that the commission did this in reaction to a floor fight over the platform at the 1980 convention. “When [the convention] was all over, members of Congress who were concerned about their re-election walked away from the president and from the party. … Democrats had to figure out a way to unify our party.” The glue argument doesn’t hold. As the Tennessee waltz demonstrated, elected officials walk away from a ticket not because they are uninvolved at the convention and not because they lack a vested interest, but rather because they do have a vested interest, their own re-election. The warmth they feel toward a candidate in the halcyon days leading up to the convention can chill as November, and the general election, draw near. Besides, the glue argument isn’t supported by the facts. By the party’s rules, superdelegates include certain “elected officials,” that is, all U.S. senators, U.S. representatives, and governors who are Democrats. At the moment, the party boasts 46 senators, 218 representatives, and 30 governors (not counting Florida and Michigan). But all these 294 elected officials added together constitute less than 40 percent of the total number of superdelegates. The rest, more than 60 percent, are not required to be elected and indeed may not be. Another oddity is that the number of DNC delegates from a state bears only a rough correlation to the state’s size. Texas, Maryland, and the District of Columbia each have 18 DNC members and rank just below New York, with 19. The reward rationale has more appeal. It isn’t entirely spin. The convention is the biggest event the party throws. It stands to reason that party bigwigs should be there, and that lesser, laboring lights should be rewarded with tickets. But this doesn’t mean they should vote. Celebrities and financial contributors also show up. They add luster and lucre, but no one has yet argued they should have a vote. The party could give congressmen, senators, governors, and political yeomen their due by creating a non-voting class of delegates. If these individuals wanted to vote, they could run for delegate election in the primaries and caucuses like everyone else. The third argument for superdelegates is that they bring experienced political judgment to the job. They aren’t as likely to fall under the sway of a candidate who can speak well or who may be unvetted, as is argued this year. But this too is spin. Many superdelegates commit to candidates well before the primary season begins and before they’ve looked at the other candidates. To the extent they have a vested interest, it is in the candidate they endorsed, rather than the party nominee. Moreover, elected officials don’t necessarily have experience in politics outside their state or in presidential elections. Their focus is on their constituents. Many may have had only a handful of real election fights in their careers. And DNC members can have even less experience in presidential politics. ONE BALLOT The party’s track record with superdelegates hardly makes the case. Supporters of the 1982 changes point to Sen. George McGovern, who was nominated in 1972 by delegates chosen solely through the primary and caucus process yet won only 17 electoral votes in the general election. They ignore the fact that Vice President Walter Mondale was nominated in 1984 at the first convention with superdelegates, and he won only 13 electoral votes in the general election. Before television, party conventions could be prolonged events. Peter Carlson of The Washington Post recently noted that it took 46 ballots to nominate Woodrow Wilson and “four ballots to nominate Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 — and he was FDR, for crying out loud!” Now, such conventions are relics. A one-ballot convention has become the goal. Superdelegates don’t help achieve that. This year, the superdelegates who have announced seem equally split between the two candidates. Objective criteria, such as who won the most delegates in the primaries and caucuses, is a better way of avoiding a floor fight. IT’S UNDEMOCRATIC Meanwhile as the debate continues, the time bomb of the Democrats’ patently undemocratic process continues to tick away. The party’s Charter and Bylaws boldly declares in Section 4(b) that the delegates shall be chosen through processes that “assure that delegations fairly reflect the division of preferences by those who participate in the Presidential nominating process.” The lofty language, however, is eviscerated by the prefatory on unpledged delegates: “notwithstanding any provision to the contrary.” As if to underscore the philosophical differences, the latter subsection concludes that superdelegates “shall constitute an exception” to the subsection mandating a fair reflection of voter preferences. This is hardly the face the Democrats want to present to voters who still seethe about the Supreme Court decision to stop the recount in Florida in 2000, a recount needed, Democrats argued, to determine true voter preferences. Whether spun as “party elders,” “wise men,” or “king makers,” the superdelegates are not selected by popular vote. Why should these 793 men and women have so much more say in picking the nominee than the 30 million voters who will likely participate in the Democrats’ process this year? Pity those 30 million for not reading the fine print. The provisions for unpledged delegates are a disaster. The superdelegates should adopt an objective standard this year, and the party should change the rules next year. Otherwise, Billy Bob, say hello to 1984.
James H. Johnston is a D.C. lawyer who has worked in Democratic presidential campaigns in 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2008.

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