Leading Democrats including Tim Kaine and Bernie Sanders are waging a war against superdelegates as part of the Democratic presidential nomination process. But ditching them would be a gigantic self-inflicted error.
The case for the supers is stronger than ever in the era of celebrity candidates and foreign interference in elections, regardless of what the populists and good government folks believe. In fact, the supers are part of a solution to all kinds of potential breakdowns in the modern nomination system. Democrats would be foolish to throw them away.
All of this feels like it’s a long way off, but remember that the 2020 Democratic nomination fight has already begun, and will break out in a more public way in only 12 months. After all, it’s just a bit over two years until the Iowa caucuses.
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To begin with, supers have never gone against the expressed preferences of the voters since they debuted in the 1984 nomination cycle. There are good reasons why the party should lead, not just follow voters. But the superdelegates in particular have been followers, not leaders. In 2016, many of them declared early -- but only because all sorts of Democratic politicians, donors, activists, campaign and governing professionals, and other party actors were declaring early. It’s probably true that endorsements by highly visible party leaders can influence voters, but if so it’s because they are highly visible party leaders, not because they have votes at the convention. In other words, superdelegates acting strictly in their capacity as superdelegates were irrelevant to the nomination outcome in 2016. That’s the way it’s always been.
So why keep them? Supers have several practical functions. Their votes for the winner of the primaries and caucuses extends the delegate lead, adding both legitimacy and certainty to the nominee. That’s something they’ve done in close contests, such as the 2008 cycle. But they’re also a fail-safe if something goes wrong. The proportional system of delegate allocation makes it possible that the winning candidate will fall just short of a delegate majority if one or more spoiler candidates hang on and accumulate delegates even after they no longer have a chance to win. Supers, if that happens, would presumably put the plurality winner over the top, avoiding an ugly and counterproductive deadlocked convention.
Both of those possibilities are more likely than usual in 2020, a year without any obviously strong Democratic frontrunners (Sorry, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders: Party actors and voters are not rushing in large enough numbers toward either of you to clear the field). It’s likely the Democratic field will wind up more similar to those of 1976, 1988, or 2004, with no clear early leader and at least a possibility that multiple candidates will remain viable well into the primaries and caucuses.
Supers also would be extremely helpful if there’s ever a Roy Moore problem: The winner of the primaries and caucuses reaches the convention after new information discredits him or her. That’s a problem under Democratic rules because the regular delegates themselves are generally slated by the candidates, and chosen not as independent actors but as proxies for the candidate. They are unlikely to defect, even if faced with overwhelming evidence that the party at large has abandoned the apparent nominee. So having a large chunk of independent delegates available is essentially a solution to a system design defect.
More controversially, it is possible to imagine the supers as the last line of defense against a Trump-like candidate -- one who is a true party outsider, had won with a factional campaign that alienated everyone else in the party, and who party actors believe would make a weak candidate and a terrible president. Supers will not be eager to act in such a case, in large part because the supers are almost all either directly or indirectly chosen by party voters. That’s why they wouldn’t normally overturn the results of the primaries and caucuses. But in an extreme case, a Trump-like case, they might.
The other virtue of the superdelegate system is just that it gives formal party leaders and elected officials a strong incentive to actually show up at their own party convention. That was part of the reason for adding them in the first place; they had stayed away from the first reformed convention in 1972. National party conventions are, among other things, opportunities for party actors at various levels to meet and network with each other, and it makes sense to encourage leaders to be there.
The current tentative Democratic plan is to leave elected officials (and the handful of former presidents and other “distinguished” leaders) as unpledged as ever, but to bind party officials to vote in proportion to how their states voted. That would still leave about the same number of independent-minded delegates in the building, and what is bound can always be unbound -- there is no higher authority during the convention than the convention itself, so it could act to free those party officials. It’s better than eliminating them, but it still would make it less likely they would be able to play a constructive role if it were ever needed.
Eliminating them entirely, however, would eliminate something that’s worked pretty well for over 30 years. It would eliminate some of the fail-safes built into the system and leave the overall process more vulnerable to catastrophic errors. In the short term, it would be destabilizing -- parties thrive on stable rules and processes. And it would risk bringing the process as a whole into what Nelson W. Polsby saw looking at the early reformed cycles of the 1970s, a system which rewarded factions over coalitions and media stars over governing experience. At worst, superdelegates may be a kluge -- but that’s a lot better than just letting things break down.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.