TOPICS > Politics

Super Delegates’ Role Thrust into Public Eye

February 19, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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The tight battle for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is putting the formerly obscure super delegate system under scrutiny. A government professor discusses the role of the appointed super delegates in the Democratic nomination.

JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, who exactly are the super delegates? Judy Woodruff explains.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Democratic Party could be entering uncharted territory as it moves toward nominating a presidential candidate.

If Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton remain as close as they are now in the number of pledged convention delegates earned, decisions by the party’s super delegates — 796 of them — ultimately could decide who the nominee will be.

For some perspective on the role of the super delegates, we turn to Tony Corrado. He’s professor of government at Colby College, and he’s a member of the American Bar Association’s Election Law Advisory Board.

Professor Corrado, thank you for being with us. First of all, remind us, who are these super delegates?

TONY CORRADO, Colby College: The super delegates are the party leaders and elected officials of the Democratic Party. They include the United States senators, members of Congress, governors, members of the Democratic National Committee, and the state chairs and vice chairs.

And they have a status as automatic delegates to the convention, where they can go to the convention without having to pledge to a particular candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can’t really talk about them without looking back a couple of decades at what happened, what, in the late ’60s, in the ’70s, that led to the creation of these super delegates. In a nutshell, bring us up to speed on that.

TONY CORRADO: Well, basically what happened, Judy, was the reforms of the 1970s that the Democrats adopted after their tumultuous 1968 convention led to a system where basically delegates were elected by pledging to a candidate, and then they were elected in primaries and caucuses.

The problem with that system was that many party leaders, many members of Congress, many state chairmen, didn’t want to really pledge to one candidate or another. They felt they had an obligation to remain neutral. So as a result, they weren’t getting to the convention.

In fact, in 1976 and 1980, less than 20 percent of the congressmen were able to go as delegates to the convention. And one out of four governors couldn’t get to the convention as delegates.

So the party felt they needed to change the rules to allow their elected officials to be able to attend the convention without having to have pledged early on to a candidate.

Revising the nominating process

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why was that so important? Because the argument is, hey, you were getting too close to the smoke-filled room with the party bosses. Why was it so important to include these elected officials and party leaders?

TONY CORRADO: Well, in some way, the Democrats felt they had gone too far. They had moved away from the party bosses and created a system that was largely based on the voting that took place in primaries.

But they felt they needed to incorporate the party leadership back into the convention, in large part because they felt there was a need for peer review.

There was a concern that there was not enough experience and political judgment about the best prospects for the party in the general election, and of particular concern about some of the insurgent or outsider candidates like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter who had emerged in the 1970s.

And many of the party elders felt that these weren't the strongest candidates to be running in the general election, and therefore they felt, by adding back some of the party leadership, you'd have a little bit more peer review.

Following the will of the voters

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, today what we're seeing is this dispute, which is on the one hand folks who are arguing the super delegates should reflect the will of the voters in their congressional district, or their state, or even the whole country.

And on the other hand, people are saying, no, the super delegates are supposed to be independent. They're supposed to do what they think is right. What was the original intention?

TONY CORRADO: The original intention was that the super delegates would do what they thought was right, that they would exercise independent judgment based on their assessment of the candidates, based on their view of what was best for the party in the long term, but also based on their electoral experience and the fact that many of them have constituencies back in the states or in congressional districts. They certainly give some mind to the voters back home.

But they were to be an independent, deliberative body. And one of the things I think we see this year that's changed is more and more, as you note, the super delegates are being considered as a group that should reflect the will of the voters.

And I think that this year the super delegates are paying more attention to the voting in the primaries than ever before, in large part because they see such great turnouts and enormous amount of enthusiasm in the party. And, therefore, many of these super delegates are paying mind to what they're hearing from the folks back home.

But in the end, it's their own decision and judgment that will have to balance not just their views of what the people back home want or what many of the majority in the party would like to see, but also what they think would be best for the party in the future and the best candidate to run at the top of the ticket this fall.

Unifying behind a nominee

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how does that decision get made? Because you're right. They are hearing arguments that if they do what they personally think is the right thing to do, it's going to be -- they're going to be accused of doing an, frankly, an undemocratic -- participating in an undemocratic process. And I mean undemocratic with a small "d."

TONY CORRADO: And I think you're right. That's the criticism we're hearing now.

You know, it's interesting. In 1984, the super delegates ended up being very important, because Walter Mondale had a very large lead. He had more than 600 pledged delegates elected in primaries, 600 delegates more than Gary Hart, yet he didn't have the number needed for the nomination.

And what happened was, towards the end of the process, many of the super delegates supported the leading candidate in terms of delegates. And, finally, after the voting was done in the first week of June, the last few votes that were needed joined Walter Mondale to get him the nomination. They, in a sense, helped to bring closure to the nomination campaign.

One of the issues this year is whether the super delegates are going to play the same role. And one of the problems that the super delegates face is that it's not simply a telephone primary the way it was in 1984, with calls being made from the candidates to the super delegates asking for their support.

This year, the super delegate race has been brought into the public eye in high relief. And as a result, many of these super delegates are now in a position where they'll probably wait to see whether a clear front-runner emerges and decide whether they should help to amplify the voice of the people by supporting the clear front-runner and, again, bringing closure to the nomination battle, or whether or not they're going to go their separate ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one thing's for sure: They are at the center of a great deal of attention in this election year. Professor Tony Corrado, thank you very much.

TONY CORRADO: Thank you, Judy.