Tad Devine: Superdelegates, Back Off

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[Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist, was the chief political consultant to Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000.]

ON the first Wednesday in June, the morning after the last day of voting in the 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the long, drawn-out battle that began with Gary Hart’s stunning victory in New Hampshire ended — but only after one last plot twist. I was Walter Mondale’s delegate counter, and I had stayed up all night to estimate the delegates won and lost in the five states, including California and New Jersey, that had voted the day before. I realized we were in big trouble. Mr. Mondale was not going to deliver on his pledge to be over the top in the delegate count by noon on the day after the last primary. He fell 40 delegates short of a majority.

We began a frantic morning of telephone calls to superdelegates, the party leaders and elected officials who only two years earlier had been given 15 percent of the vote in the Democratic nominating process. By noon, the former vice president had persuaded enough delegates to ensure himself the nomination. The superdelegates did the work they were created to do: they provided the margin of victory to the candidate who had won the most support from primary and caucus voters.

Now, a quarter-century later, the Democratic Party is once again engaged in a nominating process — this time between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — in which the margin of victory will be achieved only with broad support from the superdelegates, the nearly 800 party leaders and elected officials who become delegates not on the basis of votes cast in primaries and caucuses, but because of their status under party rules.

Democrats created these superdelegates after the 1980 election with several purposes in mind.

Party leaders had been underrepresented on the floor of the 1980 convention, which was the culmination of a bitter contest for the nomination between President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy that left our party deeply divided and contributed to the party’s loss of the presidency that year....
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