Blame Facebook for this post. Got into an online conversation with a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter who had a jaundiced opinion of the Democratic Party’s “super delegates.” The few basics I offered about how our political parties work came as news to him, as he thought they would to most people. I thought they would to almost nobody. In case he’s right and I’m not, I’m filling out here what I told my fellow Facebooker.
Our political parties aren’t officially part of the government. They’re mentioned nowhere in the Constitution. In fact, its architect James Madison was deeply suspicious of them. And George Washington warned against them in his 1796 Farewell Address. Madison’s and Washington’s warnings fell largely on deaf ears and political parties took hold within a few years of the Constitution’s ratification, an entrenched feature of our political culture ever since.
Our political parties are essentially private organizations, bringing together people with a shared vision of the common good they work to advance through the political process. Anybody can start a political party; we currently have about 200. Like Kiwanis, Rotary and other such organizations, they make their own operating rules.
Why would a national political party think super delegates are a good thing?
Let’s start with who the super delegates are, calling them by their proper name. “Super delegate” is a media invention. Officially, they’re “unpledged party leaders and elected officials.” According to the Pew Research Center, there are 713 of them this year. The nearly 600 who’ve declared for either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders can change their minds any time until they actually cast their votes at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
The largest group of unpledged delegates consists of members of the Democratic National Committee. Others include sitting members of Congress, governors, current and former presidents and vice-presidents of the United States, former leaders of both houses of Congress, and all former chairpersons of the Democratic National Committee.
So, contrary to widespread belief in some quarters, the unpledged delegates aren’t political hacks or people who wandered in off the street. They’re people who, for the most part, have a substantial record of demonstrated service to the Democratic Party and a stake in its fortunes.
Assuming that nobody wants to revert to the bad old days of smoke-filled, brokered nominating conventions, there are two ways to avoid that. One way, favored this year by the Republicans, is to allocate pledged delegates largely on a winner-take-all basis. That worked like a charm, sparing the Republicans a convention slug fest but saddling the party with Donald Trump, who one of his supporters told a television reporter—twice!—is a “lunatic.” The interviewee nonetheless eagerly looked forward to voting for him in November.
Maybe because they don’t want candidates cherry picking the large delegate-rich states and giving the rest only passing notice, the Democrats allocate pledged delegates proportionally, with each candidate awarded delegates on the basis of his or her percentage of the primary or caucus vote in each state. That procedure has related upsides and downsides. Because it’s harder, as we’re seeing now, for candidates to amass a majority of pledged delegates, it forces them to run national campaigns, scrounging for delegates wherever they can find them, in large states and small, territories and the District of Columbia. That’s a good thing, ensuring that the candidates learn the country from border to border and the reverse. But the fact that proportional allocation of pledged delegates makes it hard for candidates to rack up a majority of them also raises the odds of a brokered convention, a throwback to the bad old days of the smoke-filled rooms.
The Democrats’ device for both preserving the advantages of national nominating campaigns and minimizing the odds of a chaotic, logrolling convention is to put 15% of the total number of convention votes in the hands of people with established records of commitment to the party’s welfare, from the highest office down.
So Sanders supporters who complain at high volume that this device is “corrupt,” “unfair” and “rigged” are absolutely right in believing that it creates major headwinds for outsider, insurgent candidates like Sanders. But that’s not a flaw in the scheme; it’s a feature. It positions a group of people who’ve heavily invested in the party’s welfare over an extended period to resist the sort of “hostile takeover” that the Republicans realized too late was underway on their side.
Ironically, Bernie Sanders has been inveighing against the party’s unpledged delegates even though, as a sitting U. S. Senator and newly minted Democrat, he’s one of them, a distinction Hillary Clinton can’t claim.