The Democratic debate on Wednesday has got to be the rowdiest any group of Democratic politicians has ever gotten outside of a wine cave. It was mostly punctuated by deepening divisions: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s righteous rage against former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s less principled spite for South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” Klobochar sputtered at one point, after a typically smug homily from Buttigieg. Bloomberg himself was booed by the crowd more than I have ever witnessed at a political event not involving our current president.
But the most telling moment of the debate was a quiet one. Chuck Todd, sporting an impressive combover, asked the candidates a procedural question regarding a potential electoral outcome.
“There's a very good chance none of you are going to have enough delegates to the Democratic National Convention to clinch this nomination,” he said. “If that happens, I want all of your opinions on this: should the person with the most delegates at the end of this primary season be the nominee, even if they are short of a majority?”
This wonky question deals with a quirk of the Democratic primary system, in which we vote not directly for candidates, but for delegates associated with those candidates, who will then vote for them at the convention. If more than two candidates remain in the race by the time of the July convention, there is a possibility that no candidate will win a majority of the delegates — meaning more than half, or at least 1,991 delegates. According to the rules of the Democratic primary, this would not result in a winner, and would become a “contested” convention. That would entail subsequent rounds of voting until a majority is reached — something like the caucus process we have already witnessed in Iowa and are about to see in Nevada.
But there is an extra layer: while “pledged” delegates are directly associated with a candidate, and are sent to the convention based on the outcome of a primary or caucus in the region they represent, any subsequent round of voting will include “superdelegates” — elite party insiders like DNC officials, members of congress, and certain other so-called “distinguished party leaders.” They are free to vote as they choose, regardless of the decisions of any primaries or caucuses. They are not, in any meaningful sense, “representatives” in a democratic process, but vestiges of a political machine built in smoke-filled rooms.
Bloomberg said that the candidate with the most votes should not be considered the winner of the Democratic primary. Every other candidate agreed.
As historian Joshua Spivak recounts in The Hill, “during the convention era, which effectively ran from 1832 to 1968, the choice of presidential candidates was usually made by a small group of bosses.” Primaries were introduced shortly after the turn of the century, but not in every state — the process largely remained the coronation of a predetermined choice of the party. That began to change in 1952, when incumbent Harry Truman was unseated by Adlai Stevenson, in a convention that took three rounds of voting. It came to a head during the disastrous Chicago 1968 convention, during which Hubert Humphrey was nominated over anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy, the frontrunner measured by electoral margins, without having won a single primary or caucus. That blatantly antidemocratic outcome was met with riots, which were in turn suppressed with horrific police brutality ordered by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. In 1970, the McGovern-Fraser Commission mandated a dispersal of the selection process to all party members, not just insiders.
But the introduction of representative democracy to the process never sat well with the party bosses. Carter won the nomination in 1976 against their wishes. In 1982, the bosses got nostalgic for those smoke-filled rooms where gentlemen’s agreements between elites determined the fate of the nation. The Hunt Commission, an assembly of party insiders, added superdelegates as a failsafe, in order to, as one participant put it, “regain control of the nomination.” This established the system we’ve become used to, and all the attention to the insurgent Sanders candidacy in 2016 obscures a general discomfort with it that has persisted throughout — including in 2008, when Hillary Clinton anticipated victory based on superdelegate count. “I am not a big believer in smoke-filled rooms,” Klobuchar said at the time, decrying the very process she endorsed on Wednesday.
Okay, back to this week. “Sen. Sanders, I'm going to let you go last here, because I know your view on this,” Todd said on Wednesday. He asked Bloomberg to weigh in first. “Whatever the rules of the Democratic Party are, they should be followed,” Bloomberg said. “And if they have a process, which I believe they do…”
Todd cut him off, asking for a yes or no. It was a no. Bloomberg said that the candidate with the most votes should not be considered the winner of the Democratic primary. Every other candidate agreed. Let’s dwell on that for a second: the leading members of the Democratic party agreed that the result of a democratic process should not be honored. Todd returned to Sanders.
“Well, the process includes 500 superdelegates on the second ballot,” said Sanders. “So I think that the will of the people should prevail, yes. The person who has the most votes should become the nominee.”
“Thank you, guys,” Todd concluded. “Five nos and a yes.”
This was a remarkable exchange, one that seemed specifically targeted towards putting Sanders in his place. As the New York Times summarized, it was “essentially an admission from Mr. Sanders’s rivals that he may finish the primary and caucus calendar with the most pledged delegates, but that they hope to hold him under 50 percent and make their case to delegates in Milwaukee.” It is particularly troubling after rumors, reported in Politico, that certain members of DNC have discussed changing the rules and allowing superdelegates to vote in the first round, as they did in 2016, in hopes of stopping Sanders from achieving a meaningful margin of victory. (DNC chair Tom Perez has said he would not honor any such proposals.)
After the debate, even Warren, Sanders’s apparent closest ally, emphasized her commitment to this tactic. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews asked her for her reasoning. Warren answered, ”We need to pick a nominee who can beat Donald Trump and that means we’ve got to have someone who is talking to all parts of the party. It’s important.” Needless to say, this statement has nothing to do with the transparency, fairness, or legitimacy of the process — it’s an expression of a political position. (It’s also a change of heart. “I’m a superdelegate, and I don’t believe in superdelegates,” Warren said in 2016. "I don’t think superdelegates ought to sway the election.”)
“I am with you on that,” said Matthews, “because it’s got to be a center-left coalition.” The procedural question was subsumed to an ideological one. The most cynical interpretation of Warren's intentions is that she might hope to achieve a result like Stevenson did in 1952, when he moved from third place in the first round to a victory in the third. Politico has reported that this appears to be Bloomberg's explicit strategy.
Some observers believe that party procedure is not based on determining the will of the electorate, but is oriented towards policing ideological boundaries — that the rules are malleable, based on what will prevent any threat towards the politics of the establishment. These people are usually called paranoid. But although this perspective is associated with conspiracy theorists or rabble rousers, it is one shared by centrist ideologues and establishment figures, like Matthews and the majority of the Democratic candidates for president.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post ran an editorial initially titled, “It’s time to give the elites a bigger say in choosing the president.” It was later given a cagier headline, after the Post’s slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” became a wry trending topic that day.
The piece, by political scientist Julia Azari, lamented the ambiguity of this early stage of the race, in which “independent Bernie Sanders seems to be leading in popular votes, while upstart Pete Buttigieg is ahead in the delegate count.” Azari suggested thinking of primaries not as an expression of the will of the masses, but as a system that would “empower elites to bargain and make decisions, instructed by voters.”
The reforms that created the modern primary system in the 1970s opened the door to too much uncertainty — and to divisive nominees such as George McGovern in 1972. This spurred efforts by party leaders to take control informally through a system of endorsements and donations, narrowing the field down to acceptable candidates before the first caucuses and primaries took place. What’s emerged since then is a process that’s incredibly complicated. Different states jockey for influence in the official primary. Candidates strategize about delegate counts. Elites try to shape the decision early on. Everyone is doing guesswork about what others want. Reforms to the process should try to make that guessing a bit more informed.
Arguably, however, elites have been determining the outcomes all along. This was already the case in the 2016 primary, in which the vast majority of superdelegates cheerfully held intentions to vote for Clinton regardless of what the people of their states decided. In one notable example, in West Virginia, Sanders overwhelmingly won the primary election, with 18 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 11. But at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, eight superdelegates handed Clinton the victory, by a margin of one vote. Obvious breaches like this led to changes in the rules, and this year, superdelegates will not be able to vote in the first round. Some superdelegates, including former DNC chair and current Fox News contributor Donna Brazile, did not want to go quietly, bizarrely using the language of marginalization to describe the new rules.
Democrats voted to removed automatic delegates from the first round of voting. But we still have seats at the table. We are still in the room and very much capable of setting the menu.#PowerRisinghttps://t.co/vuD99YqFe2— Donna Brazile (@donnabrazile) August 25, 2018
But the superdelegates remain in place, and even with a more constrained role, they might play a pivotal part in a convention that could include three or more candidates on the ballot. The implications are grim. It may seem reasonable to suggest a party nominee should have the support of more than half of its members, but in actual practice, the alternative process to determine that nominee is a form of voter disenfranchisement. It will be determined not by representative democracy, but by those who already hold power. No wonder people rioted in 1968.
There is a possibility this year that a mathematical technicality — the difference between a plurality and a majority — will become a pretext. Instead of being a call for a more direct representation of the will of the voters, it could be used to prioritize the decisions of a small group of people who are not beholden to the citizenry.
There are millions of Democratic voters in the U.S. There are only 771 superdelegates in the Democratic party. In the end, they may be the ones who decide on the nominee, no matter how we vote.