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The irony of ‘super-delegate’ rule

In the battle to become the Democratic presidential candidate, nearly 40 percent of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination are “super-delegates” — senators, governors, House members, and other top officials.
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The announcement by 29 House Democrats on Wednesday that they’ll back Rep. Dick Gephardt for president in 2004 highlights a contradiction to the principle that the rank-and-file members choose the party’s nominee. Led by top House Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoyer, the 29 are among 800 “super-delegates” that come from the elite ranks of the party. The super-delegates — nearly 40 percent of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination — are senators, governors, members of the House, and other top officials and ex-officials.

“It is a contradiction in terms for the Democratic Party to have a very undemocratic part of its nominating process,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia expert on presidential politics. “But a political party’s purpose is to win elections, and this is designed to help them do that.”

Republican Party rules provide a guaranteed role in the nominating process for about 165 party leaders from each state and the U.S. territories, but they account for only about 6 percent of the number needed to clinch the GOP nomination.

The Democratic super-delegates are the party’s elected elite: all 278 Democratic governors and members of Congress, as well as “distinguished party leaders” such as former President Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.


The super-delegates also include party operatives such as the chairmen of each state party and the heads of groups such as the National Conference of Democratic Mayors.

Also given “super” status are the 425 members of the Democratic National Committee. DNC members are allotted on the basis of the population of each state and its Democratic vote in presidential elections.

Large, heavily Democratic states such as California have disproportionately more DNC members than small states where Democratic candidates haven’t done well, such as Nebraska.

Traditional Democratic stronghold Rhode Island, with its 1 million people, has seven DNC members, but GOP-leaning Kansas, with 2.7 million people, has only four.

Party rules require delegates elected by the voters in primaries to vote for the candidates to whom they are pledged at the convention.

Super-delegates are nominally unpledged but often — as with Wednesday’s announcement by Pelosi and Hoyer — they announce which contender they’ll vote for months before the convention, helping give their favorite candidate some momentum.

In 2000, for instance, Gore’s victory over challenger Bill Bradley was boosted by the endorsements he got from super-delegates such as California Gov. Gray Davis and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

Even though Bradley gave Gore a run for his money in the New Hampshire primary, Gore edged him out there and had his stash of super-delegates as an insurance policy just in case Bradley showed an unexpected resolve to fight on.

REACTION TO MCGOVERN The party adopted the super-delegate system prior to the 1976 convention in reaction to rules written by a 1971 party reform commission headed by Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota and Rep. Donald Fraser of Minnesota.

The McGovern-Fraser Commission’s rules required ethnic minorities, women and young voters to be represented at the national convention in proportion to their share of population in each state. The rules helped McGovern win the 1972 nomination.

“You had very few senators or governors at the 1972 convention,” Sabato recalled. “As a result, the convention was perceived by many as having gone out of control, nominating a far-left candidate who was crushed in the November elections.”

The motive for giving elected officials a guaranteed role in the process was “to put the emphasis on electability” Sabato said. For governors, senators and House members, “their fate is very much tied to the nominee’s.”

THE BOTTOM LINE The importance of super-delegates is far more than a matter of lending their prestige and popularity to a contender; their 800 votes could determine the nominee.

There has not been a truly contested Democratic presidential convention since 1960. But with a field that appears fairly evenly balanced at this early stage, it is conceivable that none of the Democratic contenders will emerge from the primary season with the 2,161 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

Although Gephardt will get the headlines on Wednesday with Pelosi’s endorsement, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is also doing pretty well in the super-delegate hunt at this early stage. Lieberman has public endorsements from 12 members of the House and Senate.

Sabato figures that Gephardt will likely end up with more super-delegates than any of the other contenders.

EXPECTATIONS RULE Despite his likely super-delegate advantage, Gephardt will be no less subject to the “expectations” game than the other Democratic hopefuls.

If Gephardt doesn’t win the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and does poorly in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27, it is hard to imagine how he could stay in contention.

Conversely, if Gephardt does well in both Iowa and New Hampshire, a large super-delegate trove may be the ultimate “convincer” that persuades party activists that he is going to win and that they should jump on board his victory train.

Sabato sees one scenario in which party leaders try to marshal the super-delegate forces to fend off a nominee they see as risky.

“Let’s say the party is moving toward Howard Dean, and most party elders are petrified by him being the nominee. It’s possible a substantial number of super-delegates could try to stop him with someone else.”

But Sabato added that if Dean wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, the party elders probably would not be able to stop him.