With the Super Tuesday primary day of March 5 fast approaching, the number of delegates up for grabs in remaining primaries and caucuses will soon shrink rapidly. As a result, attention is turning to delegates who aren’t bound either ethically or by party rules—”superdelegates,” delegates to the Democratic National Convention whose very existence is meant to act as a brake on the will of Democratic voters.
“Superdelegates” were invented by the Democratic Party after the 1980 election to allow party leaders to influence—don’t say rig—a presidential nomination if a candidate not favored by the party establishment is in the ascendancy by having delegate votes held by party regulars and elected officials, free of the influence of party primaries or caucuses. Where most delegates to the national convention are elected by party conventions or by the voters, “superdelegates” become delegates by virtue of their offices.
It was a response to Democratic Party reforms of the late 1960s and early ‘70s that had passed control of the nomination process out of the hands of party officials who had supported increasingly corporate financing for the party and backed the Vietnam War. In the first election after the creation of the unelected category, it made a difference—the unelected delegates gave Walter Mondale the margin he needed to claim victory over Gary Hart. In 1992, Bill Clinton had a majority of the unelected delegates before the primaries and caucuses had even begun. A count by the New York Times in November showed most of this year’s unelected delegates favored Hillary Clinton.
About a fifth of all delegates to the national convention in Denver this year will be superdelegates—801 out of 4,049. It takes 2,025 to win the nomination. There are eight unelected Nevada delegates, all of them either public officials or Nevada party officers:
• U.S. Sen. Harry Reid – Reid has said that because he wanted to promote the Nevada caucuses he would remain neutral. However, his son, Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid, is head of Hillary Clinton’s state campaign. Now that the caucuses are over, Sen. Reid is presumably free to drop his neutrality.
• U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley – Berkley had also promised neutrality but dropped it when Hillary Clinton faced a stronger-than expected challenge from Barack Obama. Berkley endorsed Clinton on Jan. 9.
• Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto – Masto says she is in no hurry to make a decision, that she will “wait and see” how events go. If the Nevada delegation is united on a candidate, she says, she will join that consensus because, “In all honesty, we can’t lose. We’ve got three great candidates.”
• Clark County Sen. Dina Titus – Titus, the 2006 Democratic nominee for governor and Democratic floor leader of the Nevada Senate, endorsed Clinton on June 12, 2007.
• Clark County Sen. Steven Horsford – Horsford, a rising star in Nevada politics, endorsed Obama on July 12, 2007.
• Nevada Democratic Party chair Jill Derby – Reported by another party official to be uncommitted.
• Nevada Democratic Party vice chair Sam Lieberman – Lieberman says he is carefully maintaining neutrality in the race because he is a party official, and the party should serve all candidates. “I am going to be uncommitted throughout the process because I am an officer of the party,” he said. Though he will have to decide on a candidate at some point, he says he will hold off “as late as possible.” He says he does not expect a brokered convention and that there will be an apparent nominee before the Denver convention begins, so he will likely end up voting for that candidate.
• One Nevada unelected delegate spot is vacant – Ruis Miranda at the Democratic National Committee said, “One yet to be determined… [will be] be elected by the state party.”
There is some disagreement about Nevada’s unelected delegates between Nevada and D.C. The Democratic National Committee says the state has eight unelected delegates, that Cortez Masto is one of them, and that one spot is vacant. The Nevada Democratic Party says it has only seven unelected delegates and that one of them is Yvonne Atkinson Gates, who recently resigned as a Clark County commissioner. The state party does not list Cortez Masto as a delegate.
State party spokesperson Kirsten Searer said the vacant slot is “an unpledged delegate nominated by the state chair and ratified at the state convention. It is usually an honorary position given to a party supporter and is used to ensure gender parity, to ensure our delegates are almost evenly split between men and women.”
Ken Bode of DePauw University, who served on two Democratic Party delegate selection rule-setting commissions and was research director of a third, says the early endorsements of candidates by Berkley and the others is not the role envisioned for the unelected delegates. Cortez Masto is closer to the original template.
“I mean, the idea was that they are ballast,” Bode said. “They have the right to commit themselves, but the idea was that they would be the kind of people who would be there because of their position, their judgment, their experience, their wisdom, what have you. And if they’re committed early that kind of takes away the original motive for them.”
Rhodes Cook, editor of a respected online political newsletter that tracks the delegate race, emphasized that whatever their advance commitments, the unelected delegates can switch their allegiances at any point in the process. They are not bound in any way to stick to their pledges. “Since Walter Mondale used early backing from superdelegates … to underscore his status as Democratic front-runner, they have been coveted by the candidates to help establish early momentum in their favor. In no campaign since then have they proved decisive in deciding the nomination, but this could be the year. One thing to keep in mind, though, they are formally uncommitted. And no matter when they made up their mind on whom to support, they can change it.”
An Associated Press survey said 200 of the unelected delegates support Clinton, 114 favor Obama and 32 are committed to John Edwards. The total number of delegates, both elected and unelected, are 248 for Clinton, 177 for Obama, and 58 for Edwards. However, that count includes 13 Nevada delegates for Obama and 12 Nevada delegates for Clinton, which is incorrect. Nevada delegates will not be allocated until the April Nevada Democratic Convention, and the convention is not bound by the results of the Nevada caucuses. Clinton will have a majority of the delegates to the state convention, and if she is scraping for delegates, Obama may not do well.
The competition for unelected delegates makes clear how different this year’s race is from 2004, when the race was essentially settled by the first contest in Iowa.
Nationally, Clinton leads among the unelected delegates. The Associated Press has reported, “Obama has won the most delegates at stake in the primaries and caucuses held so far. But Clinton leads the overall race for the nomination because she has the support of more superdelegates, a group of about 800 party and elected officials who automatically get to attend the national convention this summer.”
In a close race, the superdelegates could decide the nominee, and given their predilection for safe choices, that would be bad news for Obama. “The establishment of the Democratic Party, you know, they’re clearly backing Clinton and put tremendous resources in the state to defeat Barack Obama,” said political consultant Donna Brazile last week on CNN after the South Carolina primary. On the other hand, delegates pledged to John Edwards, seen as more likely to be anti-establishment, may counterbalance the unelected delegates, although with Edwards’ withdrawal, that is plainly less of a factor.