Torricelli on Super Delegates

The rules that govern the Democratic Party’s Presidential Delegate selection process are the result of thirty years of conflict. National conventions have been divided and reform commissions have fought into many long nights. There’s really only one major reform in recent decades that represented a consensus: everybody recognized the need for the Super Delegates.

More than 20 years after their creation, Super Delegates have finally entered the center stage. Without their support neither Barrack Obama nor Hillary Clinton could get nominated. The as usual ill-informed media and the idiot pundits on cable television have reacted with horror. The process, they contend, has been hijacked and some abomination has manipulated the process and denied it legitimacy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When the 1980 election ended the Democratic Party was in a shambles. President Carter had lost in a landslide. Successive insurgencies in 1968 and 1972 left deep ideological scars on the Party. Increasingly the Congressional Leadership was distancing itself from the Party activists that dominated the Presidential nominating process. The national political conventions were opportunities to write platforms that everyone ignored and produced streets brawls disguised as a nominating process on national television. The result was the Hunt Commission.

The Hunt Commission represented the only consensus in the Democratic Party. Everybody believed that the process was broken. Over twenty years the nominating conventions had evolved into something that no one ever planned. A few scattered primaries expanded into a patch work of state caucuses and primaries. The mixture of a few elected delegates and large number of uncommitted (favorite son) delegations was replaced by delegates bound to individual candidates. A combination of winner-take-all and proportionally divided delegations was replaced by exclusively proportional delegations.

The Commission met in the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. McGovern and McCarthy veterans huddled in their corners. A few of the State Chairs came prepared with lengthy prescriptions and over everybody’s shoulder peered Walter Mondale (I was his representative) and Ted Kennedy. They were the likely contenders in 1984 and their interests and those of previous insurgencies and Party leaders would frame the recommendation that became the current delegate selection rules.

The most surprising thing was how many things these disparate interests agreed upon. The most important was to get Members of Congress back in the process. First, unless Congressional leaders participated in the process, they would feel no accountability to the platform and no responsibility for the nominee. To choose a candidate without Members of Congress and Governors participating was bad politics and bad government. Second, proportional representation was the right thing to do. Unless delegates were allocated by the actual vote, minorities would never be properly represented. The problem was that proportionately dividing every contest might result in no candidate gaining a majority. In an evenly divided election or a multi- candidate field, it was entirely likely that no one would get enough delegates. The result would be the kind of brokered convention that Americans disdain.
Each of these problems had a common prescription. The Super Delegates were born. Members of Congress and other Party establishment types would automatically be delegates. Their participation would bridge the divide that the antiwar insurgency campaigns had created between activists and leaders. Elected officials would feel accountable to the nominee and the Party platform. And, finally, the Super Delegates would provide the judgment and experience to break a deadlock if no one prevailed in the primaries.

It took 28 years but the scenarios that we envisioned during those long debates in the Hunt Commission have finally occurred. The Democratic primaries are unlikely to produce a clear victor. The good news is that hundreds of elected officials will be in the convention to help choose a winner. Then, when the choice is made, they’ll feel accountable for the nominee’s success in the election and in governing.