Even the Democrats are sick of their own superdelegate system

posted at 2:01 pm on February 28, 2016 by Jazz Shaw

It’s been an assumed fact of life among conservatives for most of the current political era that the Democrats’ primary system is, if anything, even more messed up than the GOP’s steel cage match. Bernie Sanders has been learning that the hard way as he watched Hillary Clinton rack up nearly five hundred delegates before the voters had the chance to assign more than a few dozen. The Vermont senator also got a taste of just how insane their caucus system can be, losing delegates to “democratic” processes such as coin flips and high card draws. Adding insult to injury was the painfully obvious play by DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz to stack the deck (perhaps literally in Nevada) for Clinton. For Republicans, this represents little more than parlor game style amusement while we wait for our own returns to come in, but now even Democratic stalwarts are getting fed up.

One of the prime examples of this phenomenon is found at the Washington Monthly this weekend, where David Atkins determines that it’s finally time to just, end the superdelegates and end the caucuses for democracy’s sake. After noting many of the same issues I outlined above, he reaches the following conclusion:

It’s not quite as bad as it might seem at first because, as in 2008, superdegelates do generally follow the will of the voters once they are clearly expressed. But their existence is an unseemly blight on the process that gives off the whiff of corruption, and the damaging effect of their weight in the delegate count is more subtle. By clearly favoring an establishment candidate over a grassroots insurgent, superdelegates give an messaging advantage of inevitability over an insurgent when they already carry the significant benefit of more money and more endorsements. In a party desperate for new life and new energy to help mobilize turnout among disaffected voters and rally its state and local losses, it’s damaging in the extreme to heap even more advantages on establishment candidates out of misguided fear of the ghosts of Mondale and McGovern…

There’s an easy way to fix all this. Just get rid of the superdelegates, and convert the caucuses to real elections. Let democracy rule, and trust in the decisions of the Democratic base to pick the nominee they want, rather than the one that spooked party leaders insist on as supposedly more electable.

The Democratic Party should be true to its name and trust in democracy.

In case you doubt the liberal bona fides of Atkins (beyond the fact that this piece is coming from the Washington Monthly in general and the Political Animal blog in particular) I would highlight the introductory paragraph of David’s which I skipped over initially.

One of the core principles of the Democratic Party is that it is supposed to be…well, democratic. Where the Republican Party is supposed to be the authoritarian defender of corporate and private power, the Democratic Party is supposed to be the fractious mix of traditionally underrepresented and disempowered interest groups fighting to change the status quo and create a better world. So one would think that Republicans would structure their party in such a way as to ensure that the poobahs and oligarchs got the final say, while Democrats would allow a less controlled yet more authentic democratic process to play out.

I should really give everyone time to catch their breath from laughing after that hilarious mischaracterization of the two parties. The idea that the “poobahs and oligarchs” of the GOP exert anywhere near as much control as the DNC is laughable, but still worth a brief examination. It’s very much true, at least in my opinion, that the power structure of the Republican party establishment has long had its finger on the scales in terms of candidate selection all up and down the ticket. It’s not always a successful effort, as the Tea Party has reliably demonstrated for the past half decade in primary battles, but the money and influence which accompanies running in the party lane is hard to deny. But at least when it comes to the primary system, the two are as different as night an day.

The GOP has some “at large” delegates in each state to be sure, but there are two key features to note. First, there are far, far fewer of them than the thousands which the Democrats bus down to their convention every four years. But second, and more importantly, nearly all of them (with a few exceptions) are at least bound to a candidate by the will of the voters on the first ballot. These “bonus” delegates are awarded based on the the total number of senators and congressman each state has (with each getting three more for state party leaders) along with some extras for party loyalty in the form of voting for the last GOP presidential candidate and electing Republican governors and legislative majorities. When the primary is held in most states, those “bonus” delegates are assigned to one or two candidates who do the best with the voters.

The Democrats’ superdelegates are simply party bosses and favorites who can declare their loyalty long before a single person has gone to the polls in the primary or taken their place at a caucus. Hundreds of them have already done so for Hillary Clinton in states with primaries weeks or months in the future. The two systems really can’t be compared, and the “Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others” system is clearly in play on the Left side of the ranch.


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