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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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What's So Great About the Super Delegates?

With the Democratic race as close as it is, analysts are paying attention to the so-called "super delegates" - namely, the 800 or so party leaders who get to vote however they want, regardless of any primary or caucus result.

What should we make of these delegates? Many analysts seem to approach them with a critical, negative assumption. I think that is presumptuous. I'd like to approach them from a neutral starting point to delineate the strengths and weaknesses that they bring to the nomination process. Tomorrow, we'll look at the weaknesses. Today, let's review the strengths.

At the outset, we should note the super delegates could only be a factor when no candidate wins an outright majority with pledged delegates. This indicates one way the nomination battle differs from most American elections: a plurality of votes is insufficient for victory. A corollary is the Electoral College. If no candidate wins an outright majority of electors - the House of Representatives decides the race.

Just as the Constitution uses the House in the absence of a majority winner, the Democrats use the super delegates. This demonstrates the need for a contingency plan in a majority rule election. Most of us usually never think about this because, outside Louisiana, American elections are decided by plurality rule, i.e. where the winner is simply the person who gets the most votes. There are costs and benefits to both rules. Obviously, with majority systems you need some sort of mechanism to sort out the mess when nobody wins a majority. Plurality systems do not require this - and so they may seem less arbitrary. On the other hand, plurality systems can and often do yield a "perverse" result - a candidate whom most voters opposed nevertheless wins.

One might respond that the Republicans have no such contingency plan for their nomination - even though their nominee is also selected by majority rule. So, why must the Democrats? In fact, the Republicans do have a plan. Theirs is just informal. The Republican solution is that most delegates become like super delegates after a few rounds of balloting. Some Republican delegates are obligated to their candidate as long as he is in the race - but most of them are free to vote their consciences after a few rounds.

This offers a different way to understand the super delegates. Perhaps they seem more reasonable than they first appeared. Every majority system must have some kind of contingency plan for when nobody has won a majority. If we accept the legitimacy of the majority requirement (and why wouldn't we?), we necessarily accept the need for a "majority maker" clause. The Constitution uses the House. Louisiana uses a run-off. The Republicans create de facto super delegates out of the rank-and-file. The Democrats give that power to party leaders.

So, the real question is how good is the Democratic solution? I think it has several advantages over the Republican one.

First, I think that if you are going to make any type of delegate "super" - it is best to make it the party leaders. They are most likely to have the interests of the party as a whole close to heart. To appreciate this, imagine what would happen if there were a knockdown, drag-out fight between McCain and Romney. The only concern on the minds of McCain delegates would be getting the nomination to McCain. Ditto the Romney delegates. But who is looking out for the party? Which delegates will calmly recognize that the elevation of their man would require a nasty battle that might do damage to the party's prospects? Neither. The McCain delegates would probably prefer a nasty floor fight that McCain wins to a cordial process that he loses because their paramount concern is the success of their candidate. Ditto the Romney delegates.

Of course, it is possible that no Republican delegates would behave in such a "narrow" fashion. The trouble for the GOP is that it is also possible that all of them would. This chance is much reduced on the Democratic side because party regulars are intimately involved. They are more likely to care deeply about the party's broader interests. Thus, they can help broker a deal that brings peace to the convention, which is good for the party.

Second, party regulars are more "qualified" to handle a situation in which a deal must be brokered, and making them super delegates gives them the power to do it. To appreciate this, consider the relationship between the House and the Senate. The House was originally envisioned to be the body with the direct link to the public. Accordingly, all tax bills must originate in the House. On the other hand, the Framers gave the Senate functions like ratifying treaties, and confirming officers of the executive and judicial branches. The Senate was ideally to be populated with wise men who could negotiate situations that might be too sensitive for the more raucously democratic House.

We can see a similar logic differentiating the pledged and super delegates. Pledged delegates are certainly politically active - but they need not be professional pols, schooled in the ways of political horse-trading. The super delegates, who are professional or retired political operatives, are well-suited for the negotiating what would have to happen if no candidate wins a majority of delegates. This kind of wheeling and dealing might not be as easy as it appears. If no candidate has a majority, somebody is going to have to switch their votes. They are not going to do that out of the goodness of their hearts. They will need some kind of consideration in return. This type of situation requires a deft touch, which a professional politician is more likely to possess. If the job was left entirely to rank-and-file delegates, all of whom are passionately committed to their candidate - it is easy to envision one faction alienating or offending another due to their inexperience at negotiation or their enthusiasm for their cause.

Third, the super delegates are free to coordinate well in advance of the convention - whereas pledged delegates are not. To appreciate the value of this, it is again instructive to compare the Democrats to the Republicans. Modern communications technology has altered the role of the convention. Party members no longer need to gather in one place to determine whom they prefer. This, in turn, enables them to coordinate long before the convention. That being said, most Republican delegates face an impediment to early coordination that the Democratic super delegates do not. Most Republican delegates are usually bound to one candidate or another for at least a few ballots. This surely complicates pre-convention deal making. It would be hard to work out an arrangement that cannot take effect until the third (maybe even the fourth) ballot. Participants in the deal might have to vote insincerely for the first few rounds to prevent an undesirable result. This enhances the likelihood that a mistake, misunderstanding, or just a shifting situation will kill the deal. It is just a level of complexity that gets in the way of a quick, easy resolution. The Democratic super delegates do not face this problem. They could begin working on a deal right now that could be put into effect on the first ballot.

These three traits are all strengths because they enhance efficiency. That is, they help secure the party a nominee while minimizing the "transaction costs" inherent to any kind of mass gathering. This is an important characteristic for a process like this. Being the nominee brings nobody - be it the candidate or the rank-and-file - any real benefit. It is simply a means to an end, which is victory in November. The more efficient the nomination process, the better positioned everybody in the party is for the general election. Nobody in the party has an interest in a tortuous convention that takes a long, painful time to find a nominee. The super delegates serve as a preventative measure. By virtue of their interest in the health of the party, their experience with deal making, and their freedom to maneuver - they can help the party avoid a messy floor flight.

All in all, I think the Democrat's "majority maker" solution is much more efficient than the Republican's. Of course, it might not seem to matter in a year like this. This is not a three-way race; thus, one candidate might be able to win a bare majority of the pledged delegates. However, it all depends on how strict the definition of "majority" is. I think the Democrats have a stricter definition of "majority" than the Republicans, and this is a prudent move.

To win the nomination without the intervention of the super delegates, a candidate must win 62.25% of all pledged delegates. [i.e. He or she must win a bare majority, or 2,025, of the total delegates. There are 3,253 pledged delegates; thus, a majority that comes through only the pledged delegates would be 2,025 / 3,253 = 62.25% of pledged delegates.] So, winning the nomination through the primary/caucus route is more like getting a bill passed in the Senate than in the House. You need a super majority of pledged delegates.

The prudence of this requirement can be seen if we imagine the process without the super delegates: all a candidate must do is win a bare majority of the pledged delegates. Now, factor in all of the quirky twists and turns we have seen this cycle. Start saying aloud all of those questions you have been whispering for a few weeks. Should we seat the Michigan delegates? What about the Florida delegates? Is the caucus system appropriate for selecting delegates, or should we stick with the primary system? What happens if a candidate wins the big states but loses the little states? What happens if a candidate comes on strong at the end, but does not win enough delegates? What if the party as a whole starts to feel buyer's remorse after a candidate has won a bare majority of pledged delegates? There are all sorts of ways in which a simple majority of delegates might not be sufficient to give the impression of legitimacy, which is a very important value for a nominee to possess. By requiring a candidate to win 62.25% of the pledged delegates - you greatly reduce the likelihood that all of those lingering, partisan-twinged (don't forget the Republicans are watching!) questions could influence perceptions of legitimacy.

And what happens when there is less than this super majority? The decision is left to the super delegates, who - by virtue of the three aforementioned qualities of interest, capacity, and freedom - are in the best position to disentangle which candidate is the "legitimate" nominee. The super delegates are majority makers if we take the definition of majority a bit more strictly. This, I think, points to a counter-intuitive advantage that they offer. Whereas most analysts seem to assume that they are inherently de-legitimizing - I think the opposite is true.

Nevertheless, there are problems with the super delegates. While they might be an improvement over the Republican way of doing business, they present some difficulties that might cause real headaches for the Democrats. We shall discuss this tomorrow.

-Jay Cost