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By Jay Cost

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Delegates to Dean: Make Us

Howard Dean was on Wolf Blitzer's show yesterday, and Drudge picked up his admonition to the superdelegates with the splashy headline: "Dean To Delegates: Decide Now." In the interview, Dean says that he wants the superdelegates to begin "voting" now. "We cannot give up two or three months of active campaigning and healing time," he said. "We've got to know who our nominee is."

Unfortunately for the party, Dean is in no position to tell the superdelegates when to decide. The reason? The chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee carries with it very little political power - certainly not enough to sway superdelegates.

It has been this way for a very long time. Fifty years ago, political scientists thought of the political parties as "truncated pyramids." The idea behind this metaphor is that it was the state parties that were really in charge. The national parties were powerless organization that few paid attention to. In fact, while digging through the scholarly literature on the parties from the 50s and 60s, I could only find two major works on the national committees. One of them is Politics Without Power. In it, Cornelius Cotter and Bernard Hennessy argue that the DNC and RNC were basically ad hoc entities without coherent organizational structures. They were there to be used by the president for his electoral purposes and, when the President was of a different party, to host the national conventions. That's it.

Flash forward to the 1970s. There's a convergence of two trends in electoral politics. First is the rise of television and the mass media campaign. This induced a great need for campaign cash. Second is the imposition of the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) of 1972, and the 1974 amendments that limited the amount of money that candidates could collect from individuals. This gave the national parties a new task - legal money laundering. This is their essential function today. All six national party organizations (the two national committees plus the four Hill committees) collect large sums of cash by waving the party banner, and then distribute this money to candidates. The Hill committees help candidates for the House and the Senate. During presidential elections, the national committees primarily help the presidential candidates - which is exactly what John McCain and the RNC are working out right now.

The key word is "help." The consensus among political scientists is that the national parties do not impose some kind of "party will." My research has found that this consensus, while essentially true, is overstated. The national parties do exercise some political power over candidates. However, it is only a modest amount.

Relevant to the issue of the Democratic nomination, there is no formal mechanism for Dean to exercise power over superdelegates. Nor, for that matter, is this a power the DNC chairman has ever typically had. He has not been a party strongman. As noted above, in the days when there were party strongmen, the state parties ruled the roost. They supplied the smoke for the smoke-filled rooms.

Dean, of course, might have some informal power - perhaps thanks to the "50 State Strategy," which has tried to rehabilitate atrophied state parties. Some superdelegates might owe him a favor or two. However, I doubt that this would imply influence over the congressional superdelegates. Furthermore, Dean is a bit of a lame duck. His term is up next year. If the Democrats win the election in November, what we will likely see at the DNC is an adjustment to fit the needs and preferences of the President. This is typical. For instance, David Wilhelm, Clinton's campaign manager, became DNC chair in 1993.

Here we can appreciate how the national committees are still a bit like the powerless organizations that Cotter and Hennessy found. Unlike the Hill committees, they are "captured" by the President for his term in office. This makes it difficult to develop long-range institutional goals, and therefore difficult to exercise real power. Ironically, if the Democrats do win the election in November, that might mean the end of the "50 State Strategy." If President Obama or President Clinton doesn't buy into it, we can be confident that the new chairman will discontinue it.

To understand this nomination battle, we need to adjust our image of the national parties. The best way to think of them is as little more than guidance counselors with bank accounts. The candidates are in charge. Contrary to what Blitzer says in the aforementioned interview, Dean is not the "leader of the Democratic Party." That's a mischaracterization of the role of the DNC and its chairman.

It is instructive to contrast the changes in the parties with the changes in the government. The 20th century saw a federalization of many governmental tasks. Matters previously entrusted to state governments were turned over to the federal government. The parties had a completely different experience. The powers of the state parties were handed over to candidates for office, not to the federal parties. The role of the parties now is essentially to serve the electoral needs of those candidates.

This is why the "Democratic Party" cannot stop this nomination race. There is no party entity with the power to say, "OK, you two. Enough is enough." In keeping with the "candidate control" model of electoral politics, the only two who can stop it are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. That's the modern party system for you. 20th century reformers thought the parties were meddling institutions that corrupted the political process. So, they stripped them of their power. Accordingly, the Democrats are at the mercy of their candidates.

Footnote: if you listen to Dean's interview, he says that some superdelegates have already "voted," and that he wants the rest to "vote" soon. This is not how the superdelegate system works. Dean knows that, and I think what he is trying to do is spin things a little bit. The fact is that the superdelegates have only endorsed candidates so far. They vote in Denver. Not before. What they say today does not necessarily constrain their votes in Denver. So, we should expect that, if the race remains close through the summer, both Obama and Clinton will work to "flip" superdelegates.

-Jay Cost