The Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama presidential campaigns, both expecting that the remaining Democratic contests will split their votes and give neither candidate the nomination, are wooing intensely the 796 “superdelegates” who may end up holding the balance of power at the August Democratic convention.

These delegates, the party’s members of the US House of Representatives and Senate and hundreds of other Democratic VIPs, have automatic seats at the convention because of past work for the party. They are not — like nearly all of the 3,253 delegates selected during primaries and caucuses — required to vote for a specific candidate on the first ballot.

So far, Democratic voters in the early contests have divided almost evenly in their support for Clinton and Obama. Clinton has won many of the big states, including California and her home state of New York, while Obama has won his home state of Illinois and most of the smaller states that have voted in the first phase of the process. Of the more than 2,100 delegates pledged so far, each has won about half. Most media counts calculate the gap between the two candidates as only a few dozen delegates.

Since Democrats divide their delegates proportionately in most state contests, winning a state narrowly does not provide much of an advantage in the race for the nomination. That delegate-sharing process increases the chances that in this very close contest neither candidate will obtain the 2,025 delegates needed to prevail through the primaries and caucuses.

A primary and caucus delegate deadlock places the keys to the contest in the hands of the superdelegates. What they will do has become Washington’s hottest guessing game over the past few weeks. Roughly half the superdelegates remain uncommitted, with many of them hoping the remaining primaries and caucuses produce a clear nominee and they do not end up holding the decisive votes at the convention. But others have already taken sides. More than 200 of those superdelegates, including former president Bill Clinton, say they support Hillary Clinton. Roughly 160 superdelegates, including Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, the party’s 2004 nominee, back Obama.

Of course even those superdelegates who have announced a candidate preference are free to change their minds any time before they actually vote in August, further increasing the anxiety in the campaigns that the superdelegates will end up being both the least transparent and the least reliable part of the process.

The Republican path to a presidential nominee has been much clearer. Senator John McCain has already won more than 60 percent of the delegates selected so far and has more than two-thirds of the delegates he needs to win his party’s nomination. The departure from the campaign of all but one of his major rivals means that he is on track to win an even greater share of the delegates in the weeks ahead. In addition, the Republican nomination system includes a few dozen superdelegates, and the winner-take-all nature of several key GOP contests helped establish a frontrunner faster.

For Democrats, though, the complicated nomination system and the dead-heat contest so far raise concerns that the Republicans, deeply unpopular because of President Bush’s performance on the economy and his continuing occupation of Iraq, will be able to unite behind the GOP nominee months before the Democrats even know who their nominee will be.

The idea of a Democratic primary and caucus delegate deadlock, with the final decision resting in the hands of the superdelegates, conjures up unappealing images of the old smoke-filled rooms of decades ago, when political bosses selected the nominee and divided the political spoils with little public input or scrutiny. The party’s nightmarish 1968 convention — when Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s political machine forced Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who had not won a single primary, upon a divided convention — was the last time party bosses determined the nominee. Daley’s heavy handed tactics angered the anti-war protesters camping in a public park outside the hotel and led to massive rioting. Television footage of the mayhem and citizen anger about the exclusion of public preferences in the convention hall helped elect Republican Richard Nixon president that year.

In the wake of the party’s catastrophic convention of 1968, Democratic presidential nominations since 1972 have been decided almost entirely through voter preferences expressed during the primaries and caucuses. Sometimes, though, party leaders grumbled that the party activists voting in the primaries went too far, as in 1972, when party rank-and-file supported Senator George McGovern, an anti-war activist who went on to lose 49 of 50 states.

By creating superdelegates, Democratic leaders argued that they would represent the voice of experience, and the voice of ideological moderation, to temper the more liberal tendencies of the intense issue activists who dominate the primaries and caucuses. In other words, they could help make sure there were no more McGoverns.

Even so, these superdelegates remained largely on the sidelines in recent elections, doing little more than ratifying the choices of party voters. Normally, voters have coalesced around a nominee by this stage in the process.

In 2000, Vice-President Al Gore won every single primary and caucus, becoming the de facto nominee almost immediately. In 2004, rivals to John Kerry won a handful of contests, but Kerry quickly established himself as the party’s nominee by winning the vast majority of the primaries and caucuses.

The irrelevance of superdelegates may change this time. Bill Clinton’s eight years as president and his wife’s eight years as a senator have created lots of opportunities for the Clinton political operation to pressure delegates. But the delegates may not be as receptive to the Clinton family pressure as they would have been in the past, now that the latest polls report that Obama is more likely to beat McCain, the almost-certain GOP nominee, than is Hillary Clinton.

An intraparty struggle for those superdelegates, if it occurs, would give new meaning to the term “winning ugly.”

All sorts of dubious inducements would be offered in the desperate struggle for the final few delegates needed to reach the magic number of 2,025 votes. Ambassadorships, cabinet appointments and other government perks might be available for the final few superdelegates. Who knows where the bidding would end?

To make matters worse, there are additional controversies that could arise if the ultimate nomination decision ends up in the hands of the superdelegates. About 75 of the 796 superdelegates have not been selected in a few states, and the struggle to place one’s own loyalists in those few still-vacant positions will be yet another skirmish in a wide-ranging nomination war.

Perhaps even more messy are the states of Florida and Michigan. Both have been stripped of their delegates to the Democratic convention because they held primaries earlier than party rules permitted. In Michigan, Hillary Clinton won with 55 percent of the vote, but only because all of her leading rivals, including Obama, former senator John Edwards, and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, had their names taken off the ballot. (“Uncommitted” won 40 percent of the vote in that outlaw primary.)

Clinton also “won” the uncontested contest in Florida, where the candidates also agreed not to campaign because of Florida’s decision to flout DNC rules.

The Obama campaign would not want the delegates of either state to be part of the convention if they are apportioned on the basis of these faux contests, while Hillary Clinton would want them included because they would increase her vote total. The convention would likely be torn over whether to include those delegates, with some in the party unwilling to allow other states to cut in the primary line while others worry that refusing seats to Florida’s representatives might hand that pivotal state to the Republicans in the general election. (Michigan, one of the nation’s most unionized states, generally votes Democratic, but the state could also be in play if the Democratic convention keeps Michigan delegates from participating.)

All in all, these increasingly likely endgame fights for the last few Democratic convention delegates will make the deeply flawed vote-counting process in Florida in the 2000 presidential election seem like the model of responsible, open government.

In other words, if the Democrats continue to move toward a primary and caucus delegate deadlock, the resulting battle over the superdelegates seems likely to create a variety of public train wrecks. Whoever prevails may be less significant than the fact that the party will end up looking incompetent, corrupt and bitterly, bitterly divided. Perhaps such a pitiful spectacle would end up handing the Republicans the White House for another four years despite widespread voter antipathy to George W. Bush’s policies.

Stephen J. Farnsworth
Stephen Farnsworth is a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington. His areas of specialization include: The US Presidency, Media and Politics, and Elections. He holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this