With the results fresh in from the Maine Caucuses it looks like another baker’s dozen or so delegates for the fattening Obama delegate kitty. The pundits are beside themselves with the prospect of the first brokered Democratic convention since 1952. The Obama supporters are absolutely giddy as the Sunday numbers showed the candidate from the Land of Lincoln pulling ahead of Hillary Clinton in pledged delegates and with a real shot on Tuesday’s Potomac Primaries (Washington DC, Virginia, and Maryland–all of which showing double-digit leads for Obama in just-released Mason-Dixon Polls) of taking the delegate lead outright.
But the Democratic Party establishment is waving around a pin that could pop that soaring balloon with an explosion that’s going to give everyone tinnitus through the conventions and November and beyond.
Just a month ago, hardly any Americans knew what a “superdelegate” was, and very many certainly still don’t. So, this has and will continue to be a wonderful civics lesson for the country. In the end, though, this knowledge might be edifying but it’s going to be very far from comforting. If you want fake reassurance that all is right in the world and everything is going to be okay, go watch a FOX News special on global warming. Rather, this primer on this most arcane element of our electoral process is going to be like your parents telling you there really is a bogeyman in the closet who wants to tear open your chest and eat your organs. These shadowy superdelegates are very real, and they may have friends, but they aren’t yours or mine or democracy’s.
If Florida 2000 was a dispiriting punch to the stomach that left our wind knocked out for the next four years, only to see us get roundhoused by Ohio in 2004, we’d better take great caution in getting up off that canvas, because there’s another sucker punch heading our way that’s going to knock us into the third row, and the ref is too busy in his picayune scolding of the corners to stop it.
So what is a “superdelegate”, if you’ve been too busy watching “American Idol” or in a deep funk wondering why you bet on the Dolphins landing a playoff spot this year? Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: Superdelegates are members of Congress, party luminaries, former Presidents–comprising some 796 of of the Democrats’ available 4,049 delegates, 2,025 of which are needed to win the nomination–who are not selected by party caucus or primary, and are free to pledge their support to the candidate of their choice.
Here’s the cynical Cliff’s Notes version: Superdelegates are party A-listers with large egos who want to not only attend the convention this summer, but want a say in what candidate the party will support for the general election in November. Many of them will toss their support to whomever is going to tap them to be Secretary of Health and Human Services so they can be done with the interminable grind of fund-raising and precinct pancake breakfasts and constituent meetings.
The history that led up to the conception of their position is long and convoluted, but it stems in part from the party backlash and “smoke-filled room” perception after the Democratic nomination in 1968 went to Hubert Humphrey, even though he didn’t win a single primary. The party activists revolted and rallied for reform of the nominating process, which many party officials claimed shut them out in favor of the unwashed rabble who were responsible for presenting George McGovern to be slaughtered like a lamb by the Nixon Machine in 1972.
The superdelegate rule was solidified and made so after the 1980 election, and 1984′s Democratic establishment candidate Walter Mondale used the new rule as a sledgehammer to crush the candidacy of Colorado Senator Gary Hart. The race was close heading into summer, but Mondale played the superdelegate card to strip the bark off of Hart and to put more than enough delegates in his column to win the nomination.
In a normal year, where the nominating race shapes up to be a blowout in the months that voters are still having to shovel their driveways before they can make it to the polling place, this wouldn’t be an issue. 2008 is not a normal year by any stretch of the imagination. If Barack Obama had had the courtesy and good sense to sit this year out and afford Hillary a clear path to use her massive organizational Weed-Eater to mow down Mike Gravel, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson as a mere formality on her way to the party coronation, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
Here are the numbers that portend big, big trouble for democracy and this “one man, one vote” canard that our well-meaning teachers tried to sell us in school: “Meet The Press” reported Sunday that, excluding Maine and the still-in-play New Mexico, in pledged delegates Barack leads Hillary 1,009 to 944. Hillary is leading Barack 263 to 174 in superdelegates. If you add those together, Hillary is leading Barack 1,207 total delegates to 1,183.
What’s wrong with this picture? Barack has won 18 states to Hillary’ s 10 and is leading Hillary in the popular vote 8,228,785 to 8,028,607. He’s winning. Period. But it’s not that cut-and-dried.
There are still 360 superdelegates who can vote whichever way they want (in fact, there are 796 superdelegates who can vote whichever way they want, but let’s stick with the uncommitted for this example). Obama is still surging among the voters (he had 22,000 show up at tiny Key Arena in Seattle to hear him on Saturday; he drew 14,000 to an event in white-as-rice Idaho; 3,000 in the middle of a Tuesday in lunch-bucket Asbury Park, New Jersey; 8,000 at Pauley Pavilion at UCLA on Super Bowl Sunday, and on and on and on). He can go into summer with an even-more significant lead in the popular vote–and the superdelegates (two of whom are Bill Clinton and Terry McAuliffe), many of whose years-old chits are being called in by the Clinton campaign, can lay down their cards and hand the nomination to the person who isn’t the popular favorite, the Occasionally Honorable Senator Clinton.
What Obama voter isn’t going to be more than a little miffed at that scenario? With the debacles of the last eight years, “disenfranchised” is the dirtiest of dirty words this year, and one that no Democrat wants to hear. They may take a page from the Republican playbook and vote with their seats. In the latest voter counts, the Democrats have a lead over voting Republicans of about 7 million and change. As mentioned above, over 8 million people have cast their votes for Barack Obama. That can translate into a lot of frustrated asses on the couch come November 4. More than enough to translate into John McCain putting his hand on the bible on January 21, 2009.
For Obama and his voters, then, to paraphrase the joke about competing in the Special Olympics, you can win, but in the end the system is still retarded.
BARACK OGRAMMY: What the hell, it might buy him a few California superdelegates. Barack Obama Sunday night won a Grammy for “Best Spoken Word Recording” for his audiobook version of The Audacity of Hope. Among the competitors he vanquished was…President Bill Clinton.