What’s a Super-Delegate To Do?

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SuperdelegateUPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention by an old DNC hand, whose expertise I will gladly defer to, that my terminology in this article tends to be misleading. A Party Leader and Elected Official (PLEO) delegate also refers to a species of state-wide pledged delegate that only certain officials are qualified to become – but they are still pledged delegates, not "super-delegates". Actual "super-delegates" are unpledged delegates, who are drawn from a subset of party leaders and elected officials (the particular species of those critters that are unpledged, or "super," delegates are accurately listed below). Thus, there are unpledged PLEOs ("super-delegates") and pledged PLEOs (pledged delegates that must be a qualified office-holder, which is a way to reserve the political plum of attending and voting at the convention for the real players). Though I made the distinction that I meant unpledged PLEOs when I used the unqualified term ‘PLEO’, the fact that there are two species of PLEO could be misleading. I know that all this is slightly confusing, but merely add the word ‘unpledged’ to the acronym ‘PLEO’ wherever it occurs, and the article should be entirely accurate. I regret the confusion, and I put the blame squarely were it belongs – on every else but me and my helpful expert 🙂

It seems apparent that the Democratic nominee for President will be determined not by primary voters and caucus-goers, but by those mysterious super-delegates. What are they, how much influence do they have, and how should they decide for whom they should cast their votes?

Officially, the 795 super-delegates (about 20% of the total number of delegates) are ‘unpledged party leader and elected official delegates’, often referred to as PLEO delegates.

The Democratic PLEO delegates consist of:

  • Current members of the Democratic National Committee
  • Current Democratic members of the House of Representatives
  • Current Democratic members of the United States Senate
  • Current Democratic governors
  • Former Democratic presidents & vps
  • Former Democratic leaders of the United States Senate
  • Former Democratic Speakers of the House
  • Former Democratic House Minority Leaders
  • Former Chairs of the Democratic National Committee

Arizona’s PLEO delegates are:

  • DNC Members
    • Donald Bivens
    • Janice C. Brunson
    • Donna Branch Gilby
    • Joe Rios
    • Carolyn Warner
  • U.S. House of Representatives
    • Gabrielle Giffords
    • Raul Grijalva
    • Harry E. Mitchell
    • Ed Pastor
  • Governor Janet Napolitano

The PLEOs were created in 1982 in order to give the party more internal control of the nomination process following the reforms of the McGovern-Fraser Commission in 1968, under which rules McGovern was able to run his 1972 insurgent, anti-war, populist campaign that captured the nomination, but lost miserably to Nixon.

One of the concerns of the DNC in creating superdelegates was to prevent the nomination process from being captured from a narrow faction of party activists. There was concern about low turn-out in the primaries and especially the caucuses in the years between 1968 and 1980, often trending as low as 10-20% of eligible party members. That, combined with with the bad losses suffered in 1972 and 1980, and the under-representation at the Conventions of elected officials, led the party to pull back from a purely democratic approach to nominating.

There is a fundamental tension in the existence of PLEOs; they were created to perform a fundamentally undemocratic function – to moderate populist sentiment. Yet to have legitimacy, they have had to function merely as an extension of the primary system. Were they to change the outcome of the primary process by handing the nomination to the candidate who was behind in the pledged delegate count, most would view that as undemocratic and illegitimate. Yet they were created free of any constraint in how they voted at the convention precisely to bring to bear their superior experience and knowledge to the nomination process. They are supposed to do what they think is best for the party, but if the majority of them see the world differently than primary voters, there would be a great deal of dissatisfaction with their actions.

Many would have PLEOs constrained by their relevant constituency. For instance a Congressmember would be constrained to vote for the winner of the primary or caucus in their district, a DNC member by the outcome in their state, and so on. But not only does that remove all independence from the PLEO, it also doesn’t allow for the option of choosing the candidate who won the most pledged delegates nationally. Is it more legitimate to choose one criteria over another? If the PLEO can chose their own standards, they can effectively choose almost any candidate they like. So why not just accept their discretion to chose, as the party rules allow?

Ultimately, the freedom of the PLEO is not compatible with any reasonable theory of democratic legitimacy that could justify giving PLEOs a vote. Each pledged delegate represents thousands of voters, each PLEO ultimately only represents one, yet their votes are treated equally. That is deeply illegitimate. Of course, this elides the issue that there is no actual enforcement mechanism behind the pledge of any delegate, effectively putting each delegate on the honor system and making each a PLEO in his or her own right – but at least a pledged delegate is duty bound, and will suffer reputational harm for exploiting the independence a PLEO takes for granted.

How should PLEOs behave? And is there still a role for PLEOs in the nomination process now that the conditions that gave rise to the creation (most notably in this cycle, the absence of low turnouts) are no longer as relevant? If PLEOs merely echo and amplify the choice of the primary voters and caucus participants, why have them at all?

I don’t believe that PLEOs are constrained by ethics, and certainly not by party rules, to vote for the candidate who has the most pledged delegates going into the convention. They are intended to be independent and they are. But does that imply that it would be legitimate for them to overturn the popular will?

In probably the most relevant prior nomination process under the current rules, Gary Hart and Walter Mondale arrived at the 1984 convention neck and neck, but with neither having enough pledged delegates to capture the prize. Mondale was ahead in pledged delegates, just 40 shy of the nomination, and PLEOs put him over the top. The result was the amplification of result of the primary process. The PLEOs clenched the deal for Mondale, but he was already ahead.

But would it have been acceptable for the PLEOs to decide that Hart was a stronger candidate and better for he party and throw their support to him, thwarting the will of the electorate? Arguably, it wouldn’t have changed anything except a few trivia questions, but it certainly would have been defensible under the current rules and completely legal – there would be no redress or recourse available to Mondale, and the Democratic Party would have just had to accept Hart as the nominee. The only question in my mind is whether the PLEO system would have survived such an outcome.

Could the PLEOs decide the nomination this year? Absolutely.

Could they give it to the candidate who comes to the convention with less pledged delegates? Absolutely.

Would that be an acceptable outcome under the current nomination rules? Absolutely.

The obvious question raised is whether we need to change those rules. Should we continue to allow PLEOs the power that they have to overturn the popular will as expressed through proportionally allocated pledged delegates? I would argue that we should not.

The PLEOs don’t have a place in the nomination process if the Democratic Party aspires to be the democratically legitimate voice of the electorate. The roughly 800 PLEOs, through their position as elected leaders of the party do have a certain degree of democratic legitimacy in their own right, but not enough to overturn the expressed will of millions of Democrats participating in the nomination process. The PLEO system is a tool of rank paternalism and elitist mistrust of the electorate that wasn’t legitimate when adopted, and isn’t legitimate now.

If the PLEO system is used to overturn the will of the electorate at this convention, it would certainly be within the current rules and within the power currently granted to PLEOs, but it would almost certainly be a death-blow to the PLEO system itself. The only way that PLEOs will continue to exist is if they follow the example of the 1984 convention and merely bless the leader who is just short of the goal. And if all the PLEOs can do with any democratic legitimacy is to ratify and amplify the outcome of the primary process, what is its purpose?

One of the major reasons why the candidates can hit the convention without any of them having the needed majority is the PLEO system itself. Why have a system that contributes to the problem it is meant to solve? Why have a system containing the seeds of its own delegitimation – not to mention the ability to deeply discredit a Democratic Presidential ticket? We should hope that the PLEOs act wisely at this Convention, and then get rid of the system before it blows up in our faces.


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1 COMMENT

  1. Popular vote vs. delegates …

    Obama and his supporters keep saying that the democratic nominee should be the one who gets the most popular votes … not super delegates. But, in addition to Obama accepting Richardson’s delegate vote, even though Hillary won the popular vote in New Mexico … it’s apparent that if Obama’s 20 year association with racist Wright (and indirect association with Farrakan) had been known a year ago by the public … Obama would not have gained a lead in the popular vote … in fact, he probably wouldn’t even still be in the race at all!

  2. When there are two candidates, and neither has attained 2208 delegates based on the popular vote, then neither of the two can claim he or she has adequate popular support for being the party’s nominee regardless of whether he or she has a few more pledged delegates. To have all of the automatic delegates automatically support the candidate who has a few more pledged delegates would defeat the purpose of the 2208-delegate requirement and, in this sense, it would be undemocratic.

    It is for this reason that I expect my local (and, for that matter, all) automatic delegates to support this or that candidate based ONLY on their INDEPENDENT judgement as to who is best qualified to lead the party and the country. These delegates should, in particular, resist the influence of that crude and uncivilized phenomenon referred to as “momentum,” an aphorism for herd animal mentality. It is only then that we can regard them as worthy of the privilege vested in them.

    The independent judgement of the automatic delegates should be based on a thorough examination of the qualifications of each candidate. One such qualification is political maturity, and one way in which such maturity manifests itself is the ability to rise (from time to time) above the fray of campaigning in oder to unite the party, even if it involves some self-effacing. Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have both had ample opportunity to demonstrate such ability. I expect my local automatic delegates think independently and without bias in deciding which one of the two has succeeded to better demonstrate this ability.

  3. MIKE:

    I have challenged GIFFORDS on her support BEFORE BEING ELECTED TO CONGRESS OF GEORGE VILLEC of the TUCSON JEWISH SOLAR DEMONSTRATION PROJECT OF 2004 AND HER PROMISE TO GEO INNOVATIONS GEORGE VILLEC WHO MADE THE PRESENTATION AT THE TUCSON JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS OF YOUR AND MY TAX DOLLARS IN THE FORM OF EARMARKS WHEN ELECTED TO CONGRESS , FOR START UP MONEY FOR HIS WAREHOUSES AND EQUIPMENT!

    THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH BEING JEWISH; IT HAS TO DO WITH USING PEOPLE OF JEWISH BACKGROUNDS TO SUPPORT A SOLAR PROJECT WITH CONGRESSIONAL EARMARKS PLEDGED BEFORE BEING ELECTED; LAUNCHED AT THE TUCSON JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER!

    THIS IS NOT ANTI SEMETIC AND SHOWS YOUR IGNORANCE TOWARD GIFFORDS AS SHE APPEARS TO BE EVERYONES FRIEND UNTIL YOU PIN HER DOWN!

    EXPLAIN TO ME AND THE OTHERS ON THIS BLOG MIKE WHY AFTER BEING ELECTED GEO INNOVATIONS RECEIVED A CONGRESSIONAL ERAMARK AND GEORGE VILLEC WAS AWARDED BY GIFFORDS AS A CONGRESSWOMAN THE CONGRESSIONAL SOLAR AWARD ??!!

    NOW MIKE SOMETHING STINKS HERE AND ITS NOT ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!?????????

  4. If Hillary loses the popular vote and is behind in pledged delegates, but wins via superdelegates, or via shenanigans that get FL and MI seated as is, I leave the party, go independent and will write in a vote in the general. If the Democratic Party tells the nation that their votes do no matter in the fashion, screw them.

  5. Hmm, Dwight, seems that rant has been heard bfore..”blame the Jews”
    … let me think.. oh, yeah, from a funny mustached, little lance-corporal in the 1930’s…. in Germany….

    Mike, I think that Dwight needs to be banned. free speech and bizzare opinions are one thing, blantant racismis another.

  6. Although I find this to be a great blog, if blatantly anti-Semitic comments are permitted to be posted I will no longer be a subscriber.

  7. Oh come on folks. Almost every Super Delegate was elected by some constituency to a position that everyone who paid attention knew included the task of serving as a Super Delegate! These are not secretly annointed, cigar smoking insiders. They were elected either in a public election (to Congress for example) or a party election (DNC member for example). It is incorrect and unfair to now be acting as though some nefarious, backroom deal has been struck.

    It is tempting to say that those elected in a public process don’t represent their party, but remeber that they were nominated by their party. This leads to a discussion of open versus closed primaries (caucuses) but let’s leave that for another day.

    Like all representatives in our system they face the question of whether to simply reflect the wishes of their constitutents or to act independently. Some may do one, while others may behave differently, but neither should be judged as wrong.

    I do think the party (i.e. us!) should take a look at the Super Delegate system, but that’s also for the future. We all knew what the rules of the game would be, and this is not the time to be modifying them.

  8. By the way, Donna Branch-Gilby has resigned her position as 1st Vice Chair. So if you’re interested in becoming one of highly sought-after Super Delegates, read on.

    The process to fill the vacancy created by this resignation is governed by the ADP bylaws:

    Article III. Section 6. Vacancies. Vacancies among the officers shall be filled by an election of the State Committee at an open meeting called with at least twenty-one (21) days written notice mailed by the State Democratic Office or State Chair. The postmark will signify compliance with the twenty-one (21) day notice requirement.

    Therefore, at our State Committee Meeting to be held on April 26, the Arizona Democratic State committee will hold a special election to fill the vacancy in the office of First Vice-Chair. Interested candidates will be nominated from the floor and must be female, as well as reside in a county other than Maricopa.

    Article III. Section 1. Officers. The statutory officers, Chair, Secretary, and Treasurer, shall be elected at each biennial organizational meeting. At this meeting, the State Committee shall also elect from its membership a First Vice-Chair of a different gender and county of residence as the Chair.

    If you are interested in seeking this position, the ADP will facilitate communications between you and the state committee members by sending up to two email messages on your behalf through the ADP’s e-mail system. Please contact Lindsey Parks, Political Director, at lparks@azdem.org or 602-298-4200 if you have any questions, or if you wish to send e-mails to the state committee members in favor of your candidacy.

  9. Dwight, you are drifting into outright anti-semitism. Clean up your act and stick to commenting on the topic of the post, or I will break my long-suffering tolerance and ban your ass.

  10. P.S. GIFFORDS TOOK MORE PAC MONEY THAN DID THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE PELOSI!!

    Theres something wrong here folks!

    Don’t say its The fault of the JEWS here; It is this GIFFORDS persona that she is ALL JEWISH and therefore needs ALL THE $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$!!!

  11. Francine and David ;”when are you going to realize its ALL ABOUT THE MONEY!”

    PAC’S and Committee’s as we speak are transferring millions of $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ to Super Delegates and there PAC’s and Commitees!

    Lets take this crap out of Politics and we MIGHT , I say MIGHT have an Election of THE PEOPLE!

    One BIG PROBLEM is GIFFORDS “The MONEY WHORE” in CD8 who has taken more PAC MONEY and Committee Money to BUY HER VOTE THAN DID JOHN McCAIN who TOOK ZERO $$$$$$$$!

  12. Somehow, I feel a need to get into this one. I agree that the people should vote – ALL THE PEOPLE SHOULD REGISTER AND VOTE!!! and the super delegates should ratify that selection. The last thing the Democratic party needs this year is for the will of the voters to be thwarted! In ’06, we elected a Democratic Congress and sent an increased number of Democrats to the Senate. In spite of this very clear expression of the will of the voters, we have been treated to votes and positions on the part of Democrats that most of the Democrats – in fact most of the electorate, according to the polls -that does not accomplish what we expected when we sent Democrats to Congress. Jim Webb voted to give the telecoms immunity??? NO! I don’t be believe we sent him there to sell out the Constitution!

    When the primaries are over, the will of the electorate will be clear – the super delegates should ratify that position!

  13. I agree wholeheartedly. The idea that the super delegates could do to the Democratic nominating process what the Supreme Court did to the 2000 presidential election is horrifying.

    On the other hand, I read that only half of the 800 super delegates have pledged their support. What are the other half waiting for? I hope it is to cast their votes for the candidate with the greatest support among the elected delegates. If that’s true, they will more than turn the tide, and we’ll be OK this time.