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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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What's So Bad about the Super Delegates?

Last week I wrote an essay in praise of the Democratic super delegates. I argued that in comparison to the Republicans - they offer real advantages. They serve as a kind of "majority maker" for the party. When a candidate has not won a 3/5ths majority of pledged delegates, the super delegates break the "tie." The Republicans have a "majority maker" solution, too: most states free their pledged delegates after a few ballots. The Democrats' solution is better. Super delegates are free to negotiate whenever they like; they have an interest in finding a candidate who is best for the party; and they have the capacity to engage in the difficult process of negotiation.

However, there are problems with the super delegates. Democrats clearly sense this - perhaps this is driving their desire to wrap the primary up. From a certain perspective, this is a strange preference. Isn't this robust contest helping the party think about its future? Isn't it helping the candidates sharpen their skills? And yet, neutral Democrats would probably be glad to see the race end on Tuesday. From another perspective, this is a highly reasonable thing to desire. While the Democratic process is preferable to the Republican one, it is still inefficient. Democrats have reasons to doubt they can trust the super delegates to do a good job concluding the contest.

The core problem is that the Democrats have empowered the super delegates to break a tie, but they have not empowered anybody to manage the super delegates. There are no rules that demand the super delegates convene and discuss with one another. There is nobody in charge of regulating the debate. There is nothing to punish the super delegates who are small-minded, nothing to reward the big-minded. There are no time restrictions that require them to make up their minds prior to the convention. They are wholly unfettered.

Thus, the super delegates have a great deal in common with a mob. They're a mob of experienced, qualified politicos who care about the party. If the Democratic Party were to be put at the mercy of a mob - this is the mob you'd want. But it is a mob nonetheless. This is why large institutions - like the House and the Senate - have reams of rules governing member behavior. If the members of those institutions are to do their jobs ably, they need a framework for interaction. Otherwise, their talents may be squandered amidst the chaos.

Let's look in depth at one potential problem.

Earlier this week, I argued that each super delegate has a personal interest and a public interest that could factor into their decisions. For instance, each House Democrat has an opinion about who is best for the party. This would be his or her public interest. Each also has a personal interest in being reelected, and this might include placating constituents by voting as they did. This would be his or her personal interest. For many super delegates, there would be no conflict. Their constituents voted the way they prefer. But for some, there will be a conflict - as seems to have been the case with John Lewis. These super delegates face a version of what is known as the dilemma of collective action. Do they pay personal costs for a public benefit, or do they sacrifice the good of the party for their own good?

Let's take a look at a simple, stylized interaction that teases out some implications. Assume there are just two super delegates, both of whom face a conflict between their public and personal goals. Each gets a choice to go one way or the other. Additionally:

- Suppose that if both delegates do what is best for the party - the party appears to be responsible to the public. So, both delegates get a benefit of P. But doing so sacrifices their personal interests, so they pay a cost of -C.

-Both delegates also have an option of doing what is best for themselves. If they do this, they get a benefit of C (regardless of what the other does). However, if one of them chooses to elevate himself above his party, the party will not appear responsbile - and both will pay a cost of -P.

-Accordingly, if both do what is best for the party, both get a benefit of P - C. If both do what is best for themselves, both get a benefit of C - P. If one works for the party and the other for himself, the first gets a benefit of -C - P, and the second gets a benefit of C - P.

These payoffs can be modeled in a two-by-two matrix. One actor "plays" the rows. The other "plays" the columns. Both choose whether to do what is best for the party or best for himself. The actor playing the rows gets the first payoff in each cell, the actor playing the columns gets the second. The generic form of the interaction would look like this:

Game 1.gif

Let's set C = 5 and P = 7. This implies that both candidates enjoy a greater benefit from helping the party than they do from helping themselves. In other words, this is what Democrats would want from the super delegates. What would the interaction look like then?

Game 2.gif

At first blush, one might think that there is a simple solution: both candidates do what is best for the party in the top-left cell. While this is a possible solution (or equilibrium), and it is socially efficient, there is another solution. The bottom-right cell, in which both candidates do what is best for themselves, could also be the outcome of the interaction. This one is socially inefficient. In other words, this interaction could result in the efficient outcome where both support the party or an inefficient outcome where neither does.

This is where some kind of institution could come in handy. That is, some rule or person could alter the payoffs to ensure that the delegates choose what is best for the party. How might this work? Suppose that the super delegates knew that if they support the party, they would be personally reimbursed for their loyalty. This might come in the form of flattering publicity, policy considerations down the line, campaign contributions to offset any electoral danger they may face, or whatever. The point is they know that supporting the party would offer some side benefit that is just theirs. They also know that this benefit is theirs regardless of what the other delegate does. That would change the game to the following by inserting a loyalty (L) factor for delegates who support the party.

That is:

Game 3.gif

Let's set L = 12 and re-run the interaction, retaining C = 5 and P = 7.

Game 4.gif

There is a single solution/equilibrium to this game. Review the options of the row chooser. Note that regardless of what the column chooser decides, he is best off serving the party. If the column chooser goes with the party, the row chooser gets -2 going for himself or 14 going for the party. If the column chooser goes for himself, the row chooser gets -2 going for himself or 0 going for the party. So, his rational move is always to go for the party. The same goes for the column chooser. Thus, both delegates will choose what is best for the party. The difference here is that loyalty factor. What it did was reward the delegates for supporting the party regardless of what the other does. This shifted their strategies.

This sort of personal payoff is actually quite common. If you have ever received a tote bag from PBS, you have received a personal payoff for helping a broader goal. This is what institutions can do. They can offer personal benefits to individuals to guide interactions to the socially efficient outcome. It need not be benefits. We could inverse the above interaction. Instead of a +12 loyalty benefit, we could have a -12 disloyalty penalty. It would have the same effect. This is one reason why the government is empowered to penalize tax cheats.

Mechanisms like this do not exist with the super delegates. They are in an institutional vacuum where there are no rules to govern their behavior, let alone dispense personal benefits if they put the party above themselves. Now, it might be that the preferences of the super delegates are arranged in such a way that an institutional mechanism like a tote bag is not necessary. Indeed, you could reassign the values of C and P in the first game so that both super delegates choose to support the party (e.g. re-run the first game setting C = 0). The preferences of super delegates need not be arranged in a socially inefficient way. But that misses the point. The point is that they need not be arranged in a socially efficient way, either. And if they are not - there is no "tote bag" provision to induce a socially efficient result.

One way or the other, the super delegates will make a choice, and the party is going to have a nominee. The question is how costly it will be to get this nominee. And this is what efficiency is all about - achieving an outcome while minimizing costs.

What are some of the costs that the Democrats will face because there are no rules? So far, we have hinted at the specter of illegitimacy. That is, one candidate wins because he or she is good for particular super delegates, not the party. Another cost could be delay. Because they are not required to do anything until Denver, they might not do anything until then. This would mean that Democrats will face a primary battle that ends six months from now. While I think most would agree that it would do the party no harm to have the primary last another two months, six months would be genuinely harmful. Waiting until Denver also means making a decision under intense, worldwide scrutiny. Party politics is not meant for such a close look. It's inevitably narrow-minded: personal concerns always come to influence what non-partisans think is a strictly public matter. Party deal-making is an illiberal part of any liberal society such as ours, but that does not mean the public will accept it. On the contrary, it will probably turn off the average voter who sees the deal go down on live television.

There are all sorts of other costs. None of them derive from the super delegates themselves. As I argued last week, the super delegate provision is a good "majority maker" solution. The problem is that they are free to do whatever they want.

Personally, I find this lamentable. It seems to me that the Democrats are in the midst of a robust, valuable debate about the future of their party. The fact that it does not involve sharp policy differences is a non sequitur. One need not discuss policy to be substantive. If the RCP average is any metric - it is an argument that neither side has won. And yet, lots of worried Democrats want it over. They doubt the capacity of the party organization to resolve the conflict. They are wise to have these doubts. Because they are unbound by rules of any kind, the fact that the super delegates will break the tie is a disaster waiting to happen.

But why are the super delegates so free? The Democrats have lousy rules that nobody cared to revise in the last quarter century because the best and brightest in American politics don't give a damn about the party organization. This is part of a decades-long trend in American politics. The party institutions have been taken for granted. They no longer play a vital role in daily American political life, so they are left to decay - until we need them. At which point, they are incapable of doing their job.

Americans like to think that strong parties are an impediment to democracy - and so, the weaker they are the better we are. They are wrong. Strong parties are an asset to democracy. The happenings on the Democratic side indicate what can happen when the parties are weak. The Democrats are in the midst of a animated discussion that many of the conversants want to end because the party organization is incompetent. What a shame.

-Jay Cost