Superdelegate issue still looms large as Democrats look to thwart Trump

Senior Political Correspondent
Yahoo News
Ken Martin. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2), Jim Mone/AP, Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Ken Martin. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2), Jim Mone/AP, Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

After the contentious 2016 primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Democrats at the national convention in Philadelphia voted to create a Unity Commission that would study the hot-button issue of the power superdelegates play in the nominating process. But with just five months to go before the party hopes to send a resounding message to President Trump in midterm elections, divisions on that crucial matter still remain.

Democrats will be best situated to defeat Trump’s agenda “if they have the trust of the voters and they have the trust of others who believe that this is a place for them to invest their time, energy and money, frankly,” Ken Martin, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told the Yahoo News’ podcast “The Long Game.” “That’s why these reforms that are moving forward are important. … People need to have a sense that the parties that they’re working with are a place, and a good place, for that activity.”

Like many Sanders supporters, Martin – who is also chairman of Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party – favors reducing the power of superdelegates. Though decreasing the number of unpledged superdelegates will decrease the party’s institutional strength, Martin believes this gesture of good faith will increase the party’s legitimacy in the eyes of voters.

About 16 percent of the 4,763 delegates to the 2016 Democratic convention were unpledged superdelegates; that is, delegates free to vote for whomever they choose at the party’s nominating convention. Last December, the Unity Commission recommended that the DNC Rules & Bylaws Committee vote to reduce the number of superdelegates from more than 700 to just over 300. That would cut the total percentage of superdelegates by more than half, from 15 percent to 7 percent.

The Rules & Bylaws Committee has held several meetings this year to deliberate over the Unity Commission recommendations and will hold one more meeting in June before making a final report to the DNC for a full debate at the party’s summer meeting in Chicago in late August.

Sanders and his supporters felt that Clinton’s establishment connections gave her an unfair advantage because they believed most superdelegates would vote for her regardless of what the primary result had been in their state. That’s despite the fact that in 2008, Clinton had a significant superdelegate lead over Barack Obama early in the primary process — until it became clear that a majority of Democratic primary voters preferred Obama, at which point superdelegates began moving toward him. The “supers” were helped along by a very deliberate and public campaign by the Obama campaign to highlight their role, which created more pressure on them to follow the will of the voters.

Nonetheless, Martin – who is a member of the Rules & Bylaws Committee – said he thinks the symbolism of reducing superdelegates is worthwhile. “Unfortunately, it’s become a lightning rod, to the point that people feel like the process is rigged, people feel like the process is unfair, and that their voice wasn’t heard in this process,” he said.

Martin argued, in fact, that superdelegates were never even meant to reduce the voice of voters. “The reality was actually to lessen [insider] influence and give more power to the grassroots,” he said.

But Martin’s argument is at odds with the historical record. Elaine Kamarck, a fellow DNC member who is a veteran member of the Rules & Bylaws Committee, has written the definitive book on changes to the primary and nominating systems in the modern era, and her account directly contradicts Martin’s assertion.

“The superdelegate category was created in part to counter the effect of binding public primaries, candidate right of approval, and the disappearance of unaffiliated delegates — a combination that has sapped the modern nominating convention of its ability to deliberate and perhaps save the party from a disastrous general election choice,” Kamarck wrote in “Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System.”

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Kamarck points out that Democratic reforms prior to the 1972 convention pushed most elected officials out of the convention delegate role and that Democrats were aghast at the results of the subsequent conventions and at the candidates the party nominated. George McGovern was crushed by Richard Nixon in 1972, and while Jimmy Carter won in 1976, by 1980 his presidency had so damaged the Democratic Party’s brand that the party would not recapture the White House for more than a decade.

And so in 1981, the Hunt Commission created superdelegates to, in the words of commission chair Jim Hunt, “return a measure of decision-making power and discretion to the organized party.”

But most voters were unaware of superdelegates until the 2008 showdown between Clinton and Obama, and the sudden emergence of this feature of the Democratic primary system produced, in Kamarck’s words, “shock and anger.”

Kamarck herself now supports the reduction of superdelegates, viewing the issue as a lost cause. “You can’t say to people who have grown up assuming that the voters make the decision on the nominee, ‘We’re not going to let you do that,’” she said on an earlier episode of “The Long Game.”

But Kamarck has not given up on attempting to rebalance the primary process to give party insiders more influence over the outcome. As Yahoo News has reported, while voters often see the parties as controlling politics, most reforms over the past half-century – with the Hunt Commission being one noteworthy exception – have reduced the power of the two political parties over and over. And many observers and experts believe the hollowing out of the parties and the suspicion of insiders and the establishment is a fundamental reason why American politics is so dysfunctional.

Kamarck proposed a year ago that the Democratic Party hold a convention before the primary voting begins to limit the number of candidates who can get on the ballot. That idea has not gained much traction inside the DNC, if any.

Despite the divisions that still remain, Martin is hopeful that Democrats can unite ahead of the midterm elections.

“I believe that political parties matter, that they still matter. They’re very important, and I would say, in a weird way, probably even more important now, as you start to think about the outlets for all of this energy out there,” Martin said.

In fact, he said, if opponents of President Trump want to accomplish anything politically, they will have to move beyond simply resisting and begin investing time and effort into party organizing.

“These resistance groups like Indivisible and Stand Up and Our Revolution and Swing Left, all these groups that have formed since Donald Trump’s inauguration … they’ve done a great job of resisting Trump and his policies and other Republicans who are following suit,” Martin said.

“But at some point, they need to channel that energy into really tangible electoral activity if they’re going to actually get power back from Trump and the Republicans, and to do that, the best place for that is two political parties and working in concert with our candidates up and down the ballot,” he said.

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