In the wake of last year’s marathon Democratic primary season and the procedural controversies it produced, it’s no surprise that the party has chartered a blue-ribbon commission to recommend changes for the 2012 process.
This is hardly the first time Democrats have sought such an overhaul; in fact, it was once a quadrennial event. This time around, the panel—which the party has dubbed the Democratic Change Commission—will be headed by South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, and Claire McCaskill, the junior senator from Missouri.
According to the D.N.C., the commission will make recommendations by next January in three specific areas: (1) changing the window for primaries and caucuses, (2) reducing the number of superdelegates and (3) improving the caucus system.
The most cynical view of the possibilities is that all of the commission’s work, no matter how many reforms it yields, will be for naught. The 2012 primary season should be an eventless coronation for Barack Obama, akin to the nonexistent primary season of 1996, when Bill Clinton didn’t even bother to formally declare his candidacy for a second term. And if Obama were to lose the ’12 general election, there’s no reason the next D.N.C. regime wouldn’t then tear up the new primary rules and draft its own, creating an entirely new process for 2016.
This has happened before. After Jimmy Carter was thrashed by Ronald Reagan in his 1980 reelection bid, the Democrats’ D.C. establishment regained control of the party and immediately set about changing to rules to prevent another outsider like Carter—or George McGovern before him—from grabbing the party’s nomination. If Obama ends up a one-termer, Democrats would likely be similarly inspired to minimize the possibility of a repeat of the ’08 primary process in the future.
But if Obama serves two terms, he would retain de facto control over the party through 2016, thus ensuring that the primary rules changes imposed by the D.N.C. stick. The changes might also survive an Obama defeat in ’12, especially if it were a close race—an outcome that might not create the kind of “never again” frenzy that resulted from Carter’s crushing loss in ’80. Either way, then, the new commission’s changes almost certainly won’t be felt in the next campaign, but they could loom large in the race to succeed Obama.
Of the three areas slated for reform, the most consequential—and sensitive—involves the number of superdelegates, that controversial bloc of elected leaders and party officials that accounted for nearly 20 percent of all convention votes last year. Free to vote for whomever they please, the superdelegates wield enormous potential clout in a close race, although they almost universally fell in line behind Obama last spring as he gained a decisive pledged-delegate advantage over Hillary Clinton. Still, superdelegates have the theoretical power to override the clear preference of primary voters.
This, of course, was exactly what party leaders had in mind when they invented the superdelegate concept in their post-Carter reform efforts of 1982. The rules reform commission of that era, headed by then-North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, was created by a D.C. establishment that was intent on regaining control of the nomination process. Before the Hunt Commission (and after previous reforms of the ’60s and early ’70s), convention delegates were picked almost entirely through the primary and caucus process; there often wasn’t room for members of Congress, big-city mayors and other party big shots.
With members of Congress pushing hard, the commission’s initial consensus was to reserve 30 percent of the seats at future conventions for elected officials and party leaders, who would have the right to vote for any candidate they pleased. (The actual term “superdelegate” was introduced by opponents of the plan, who used it disparagingly.)
The 30 percent number almost certainly would have been enacted (and probably would have survived through 2008) if it weren’t for Ted Kennedy. As the Hunt Commission met in early 1982, Kennedy was considered one of the two front-runners for the 1984 nomination, along with Walter Mondale, who had been Carter’s vice president. While both Kennedy and Mondale enjoyed substantial insider support—the Hunt Commission was designed to ensure that one of them would win the ’84 nod—Kennedy feared that Mondale, a senator before his elevation to the vice presidency, had more friends on Capitol Hill, and thus would benefit more from a gigantic superdelegate bloc.
Kennedy’s forces compelled a compromise: Instead of giving delegate spots to every House and Senate Democrat, only two-thirds of each chamber’s Democrats would become delegates. (Each chamber held a caucus to choose its superdelegates in early ’84.) Kennedy agreed and then, 10 months later, decided not to run in ’84, transforming Mondale into the overwhelming establishment favorite.
When the reforms were announced, Hunt called the creation of the superdelegate category “essential” to providing “the kind of peer review we need to have a winning candidate who can also govern.”
The superdelegates did what they were designed to do in ’84, lining up early behind Mondale and sticking with him even when Gary Hart, a reform-minded outsider who (like Carter and McGovern before him) became a national sensation almost overnight. In the end, though, those superdelegates merely padded Mondale’s pledged-delegate advantage over Hart. Had they all switched to Hart (who begged them to do so in the run-up to the convention), it theoretically could have swung the nomination, but this wasn’t a realistic prospect. As it was, none of them budged, and Mondale secured the nomination by about 900 delegates.
After ’84, superdelegates became a convention fixture, and barely anyone noticed. In 1988 and 1992, the party’s nominee was obvious by early April. In 2000, Al Gore sealed the nod in early March. And in 2004, John Kerry was the clear winner by February. With the primary process producing a clear result after a handful of contests, the role of a convention delegate no longer seemed to matter. (In the meantime, a rules change expanded the number of superdelegates to include all members of Congress, although the number of pledged delegates was also increased, so the collective influence of superdelegates wasn’t greatly expanded.)
After last year’s experience, there is much popular support to reduce or eliminate the number of superdelegates; hence the new D.N.C. commission’s mandate. But the Congressional pressure that existed in 1982 won’t just go away. Members of Congress and other party leaders like being delegates to the convention, even if the convention is just a meaningless coronation. It’s a status thing; plus, by creating a special category for party big wigs, it frees up delegate slots for lower-profile activists and fund-raisers.
These insiders also know that a repeat of 2008 is highly unlikely. The Obama-Clinton race, which stretched from January to June and featured primaries and caucuses in all 50 states, was a perfect political storm; Obama was probably the only candidate who could have competed with Clinton, and Clinton was the only candidate who could have competed with Obama.
Far more typical are the examples of ’04, ’00, ’92, and ’88, when the candidates were less imposing and primary voters were far more willing to shrug and fall into line after a few contests. If the next few nominating contests produce a similar result, people will go back to forgetting that superdelegates even exist.
Most likely, the Democratic Change Commission will end up reducing the number of superdelegates; there’s enough outside pressure to compel it. But the reductions will probably be limited—and, barring a repeat of Clinton-Obama in the near future, short-lived.