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Could Democratic Insiders Tip the Nomination Process?

Superdelegate system dilutes popular vote

Feb. 6, 2008
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The 2008 primary elections have attracted record-breaking numbers of voters to the polls, especially for the Democratic Party. But could a few hundred Democratic insiders—called “superdelegates”—determine the party’s nominee for president? The two final Democratic candidates—Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois—are not only fighting for the popular vote, but the delegate count as well. As we go to press while voting is taking place for Democrats in 22 states, it appears that neither candidate has a lock on the majority of the 4,049 delegates they need to secure the nomination.

Going into Super Tuesday, Clinton has the edge with 48 delegates and 193 superdelegates. Obama has 63 pledged delegates and 106 superdelegates. John Edwards, who withdrew from the race, has 26 delegates. If Super Tuesday’s results are split fairly evenly, Wisconsin’s Feb. 19 primary election could help to decide the nomination. The state sends 92 delegates to the Democratic convention, and they are split proportionally according to the popular vote. Well, sort of. Of the 92 Wisconsin Democratic delegates, 76 delegates pledge to vote according to the results on Feb. 19.

But the remaining 16 superdelegates are free to vote as they wish. Like superdelegates from other states, these 16 from Wisconsin are not bound to any one candidate. While many publicly endorse a candidate, they can change their minds at the convention.

And with nearly 800 Democratic superdelegates around the country, there are perhaps enough to swing the election at the party’s convention in August.

Swinging the Election?
Superdelegates were created as a result of the messy convention of 1968. Technically, they are not Democratic Party representatives, but members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which can be thought of as the political wing of the political party.

“The superdelegates were a reaction by the institutional structure, most likely the elected officials and party officials, [because] they needed some control over the process,” said Joe Wineke, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “It amounts to about 20% of the total delegates.

It’s a distinct minority.” But progressive activist and attorney Ed Garvey, a former Democratic candidate for governor of Wisconsin, said the system isn’t all that democratic and favors the status quo over grassroots candidates.

“First, I don’t think that there are five Democrats in the country who know this is going on,” Garvey said. “Second, [superdelegates are] not responsible to anyone. And third, they’re all incumbents so they make sure that whoever gets their support is incumbent friendly.”

Garvey said there are enough superdelegates to provide the winning margin for one candidate at the party convention. “Suppose you went in there with, say, 500 delegates separating the two candidates, and the 800 superdelegates voted as a bloc; they could turn it over to the No. 2 candidate,” Garvey said.

There is a lot on the line—not only naming the eventual nominee, but the benefits that can come from helping to make that decision, such as a political appointment in the new administration or other perks. Garvey said that superdelegates should be upfront about their intentions.

“They almost have a duty to tell us how they would vote and give us a chance to remove them,” Garvey said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to go into the primary and vote for a candidate, and then vote on whether someone should be a superdelegate?”

Who Are Wisconsin’s Superdelegates?
Although the Democratic Party cannot endorse in primary races, members of the DNC are able to weigh in on the candidates. Like other states, Wisconsin’s 16 superdelegates are a mix of Democratic elected officials and DNC members. The elected officials include: Gov. Jim Doyle, Sen. Russ Feingold, Sen. Herb Kohl, Rep. Gwen Moore, Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Rep. David Obey, Rep. Steve Kagen and Rep. Ron Kind.

DNC members from Wisconsin include: Wineke (as chair of the state party he is automatically a DNC member), state Sen. Lena Taylor (as vice chair of the state party), Tim Sullivan, Stan Gruszynski, Jason Rae, Melissa Schroeder and Paula Zellner. College Democrats of America member Awais Khaleel is also a superdelegate from Wisconsin.

While Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a former Democratic member of Congress, was an early supporter of Obama, he is not a superdelegate. He could become a pledged delegate for Obama at the convention if he requests that status. Wineke said that since the mayor of Milwaukee is a nonpartisan office, and a Republican could in theory become mayor, he or she doesn’t automatically become a superdelegate.

But the mayor of Milwaukee is usually bumped to the top of the list of pledged Democratic delegates. A handful of Wisconsin’s superdelegates have endorsed a candidate. Doyle and Moore have publicly endorsed Obama, while Baldwin and Sullivan are supporting Clinton. (They are free to change their minds, of course.)

Wineke and Obey had supported John Edwards, but have not endorsed a new candidate in the wake of Edwards’ departure from the race. Edwards has not publicly directed his supporters to vote for either of the remaining candidates. Wineke said that he received about 25 calls from Obama and Clinton supporters in the first 24 hours after Edwards bowed out. But last Thursday Wineke said he wasn’t ready to endorse.

“Up until 28 hours ago I was whole bore for Edwards, the first candidate since Bobby Kennedy who focused on poverty,” Wineke said last Thursday. Besides, Wineke added, the Wisconsin Democrats have their annual fund-raiser scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 16, just before the state primary, and he wants both Clinton and Obama to attend the event.

“They’d be crazy not to be there,” Wineke said. What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.


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