Democrats’ Nightmare: Back to Smoke-Filled Rooms


By: Wall Street Journal

If Primaries Are a Draw, Elite Superdelegates Could Pick Candidate
By JUNE KRONHOLZ

WASHINGTON — Here’s a nightmare for the Democrats: The party’s bigwigs, rather than its voters, may end up choosing the presidential nominee.

If neither Illinois Sen. Barack Obama nor New York Sen. Hillary Clinton manages to pull decisively ahead in the next few weeks, the nomination could depend on the convention votes of 796 party leaders, or superdelegates, who are free to ignore the preferences of Democratic voters.

“To the public, that looks like a throwback to the old, corrupt system of smoke-filled rooms,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

Adds Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute: “The party pols could make the decision.”

The chances of that happening grew larger Tuesday when Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama battled to a near photo finish in the race for convention delegates. Because of the Democrats’ delegate-allocation system, which awards votes based on how well each candidate did statewide and in each congressional district, the delegate count may not be final for several days.

In preliminary counts by the non-partisan RealClearPolitics.com and others, the two Democrats were within a few votes of each other, with 600 to 800 delegates each. A candidate needs 2,025 delegates to win the nomination.

Ten states and Washington, D.C., will hold primaries or caucuses Feb. 9 through Feb. 19, with Sen. Obama expected to do well in many of them. Ohio and Texas follow with primaries on March 4, and Sen. Clinton is favored in both.

If neither candidate scores a knock-out blow and they head into the April and May primaries, political experts predict the race will begin focusing on the superdelegates, who hold 20% of the votes at the convention.

Superdelegate votes were allocated to Democratic governors, senators and other party honchos in a series of party rules changes in 1984. The idea was to encourage the party’s office holders to attend the convention and provide a firewall in case someone unelectable — say, a Huey Long populist or Norman Thomas socialist — swept the primaries, says Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who helped write the rules.

Democratic primaries have produced undisputed winners since then, however, and the superdelegates have never played a decisive role. That could change this year, and with potentially embarrassing results.

RealClearPolitics.com calculates that 211 superdelegates have announced plans to support Mrs. Clinton, compared with 128 for Mr. Obama, and political experts expect a steady trickle of additional superdelegates to choose sides in an effort to force the party to settle on a nominee.

That would give the superdelegates the balance of power, Mr. Sabato says, but it also would put them in an embarrassing spot. Allowing the party’s honchos to decide the nomination would make it look as if the party were returning to days when party bosses controlled the nominating process. Democrats would be even more red-faced if key superdelegates then received big jobs in a new Democratic administration.

But a drawn-out nomination would be equally problematic for the party. It would give the Republican candidate time to begin organizing and fund raising for the November general election if, as expected, the Republicans settle on a candidate this month. And it would give Democrats less time to reconcile after an acrimonious campaign.

Superdelegates won’t be easy for either candidate to hang on to, though, and they could make the campaign even more contentious. The high-profile superdelegates are likely to stick with their pledges. Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy isn’t likely to waver in his support of Sen. Obama, for example, and Washington Sen. Patty Murray isn’t likely to withdraw her pledge to Sen. Clinton.

Some superdelegates will need constant wooing, though, and as they are free to switch sides, that would set off battles between the candidates. Mr. Ornstein suggests that smaller-fish superdelegates will continually re-evaluate how either Mr. Obama’s or Mrs. Clinton’s nomination would affect down-ticket races. Would Mrs. Clinton bring out more Republicans, who could hurt the election chances of Democratic House members, for example, or would she turn out more women, who could help?

With the delegate count so close, competition for each superdelegate will become intense and potentially rancorous, political experts predict. And whoever finally wins will face a deeply divided party.

“You’ll have half your party believing they’ve been shafted by the other half,” says AEI’s Mr. Ornstein.

Mr. Sabato predicts superdelegates will move to one candidate or the other by May or June to allow the party time to mend fences with its constituent groups before the August nominating convention in Denver.

Ironically, Democrats were trying to enlarge the role of the voters when the party shifted to the delegate-allocation system and unintentionally created the current deadlock.

“Sometimes, you can have an excess of democracy, and that’s what we’ve got now,” Mr. Sabato adds.

Write to June Kronholz at june.kronholz@wsj.com

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