Parties’ power in the hands of their delegates

An unusually tight Democratic race is focusing attention on one of the more arcane aspects of nomina

An unusually tight Democratic race is focusing attention on one of the more arcane aspects of nominating a presidential candidate: the role delegates play in the process.

There are 4,049 Democratic delegates. In August, they will attend the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where they will nominate the next Democratic candidate for president.

There are two types of delegates. The first is those who were elected in party primaries and are pledged to vote for a particular candidate. The second encompasses the 842 unpledged del egates, or “superdelegates” — Democratic governors, members of Congress, former Democratic presidents and all Democratic National Committee members. Delegates by virtue of office or position, they comprise about 20 percent of the delegate total, and in a close race, they could tip the outcome. They are not bound to any candidate and are free to change their minds about for whom they will vote.

“The superdelegates are automatically delegates,” said Joseph Zimmerman, a professor of political science at the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. “They don’t have to run and be elected.”

New York will send 281 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Last Tuesday, voters elected 151 delegates; each of the state’s 29 congressional districts will send five or six delegates. An additional 81 delegates will be elected at the Democratic State Convention in May; these delegates will be allocated proportionally, based on the results of last Tuesday’s state primary.

The superdelegates are the 24 Democratic members of Congress in New York — in the Capital Region, this includes Rep. Michael McNulty, D-Green Island, and Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-Hudson — the 19 members of the Democratic National Committee from New York, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, former president Bill Clinton and four “unpledged” at-large delegates who will be elected at the Democratic state convention in the spring.

Right now, every member of the congressional delegation, which includes Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Hillary Clinton, Spitzer and former president Clinton, are expected to endorse Clinton. Many of the DNC members are believed to be in Clinton’s camp as well.

Power brokering

In recent years, the Democratic National Convention has served as more of a pep rally for the party, a way to rally support and unite around one candidate. But no clear winner emerged in the Democratic primary on Super Tuesday, leaving candidates Sen. Barack Obama and Clinton to continue to battle for the party’s nomination. If the race remains close, it could mean the first brokered Democratic convention in decades. At a brokered convention, delegates and superdelegates vote to decide the party nominee.

“Usually, by this time in the nomination process, it’s over,” said Cliff Brown, a professor of political science at Union College.

“We’re now in a protracted delegate race,” said Jonathan Rosen, a spokesman for the New York State Democratic Committee. “It’s healthy for democracy. The Democrats are fired up. We’re having record-breaking Democratic turnout. It’s good for the party.”

In the New York state primary on Tuesday, Clinton won 139 delegates and Obama won 93. Nationally, Clinton also leads in delegates, 1,064 to Obama’s 1,029; so far, Clinton has 213 superdelegates, Obama 139, according to a survey by the Associated Press.

On the Republican side, things are pretty much settled. Sen. John McCain is likely to be the party nominee, although former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are still in the race. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced last week that he was suspending his campaign.

The Republicans have 2,380 delegates; 463 of them are unpledged. Typically, unpledged delegates give their support to their state’s winner.

In many states, including New York, the Republican primary uses a simpler winner-take-all system, in which the winner receives all of the state’s delegates, even in a close race. This means that all of New York’s 101 delegates will represent McCain, the winner on Super Tuesday, at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in September. Eighty-seven of these delegates were elected by voters on Super Tuesday, and 11 unpledged, at-large delegates will be elected at a meeting of the Republican State Committee. There are also three automatic, unpledged delegates: Joseph N. Mondello, the state party chairman, Alexander Treadwell, a national committee member, and Jennifer Saul Yaffa, a national committee woman.

Too much independence?

Some have expressed concerns about the use of superdelegates, claiming they are undemocratic and take the nominating process out of the hands of voters.

In a recent piece, the editor of the liberal newsmagazine The Nation, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, wrote, “The [Democratic National Council], Gov. [Howard] Dean and the state parties need to do some serious thinking — starting now — on how to avoid a situation where backroom deals determine the nominee and his or her legitimacy is called into question.”

The Burlington, Vt.-based political action committee Democracy for America, a group that supports socially progressive candidates for office, believes superdelegates should honor the wishes of their constituents, according to a statement from the group’s political director, Charles Chamberlain.

“They should honor the popular vote,” he said. “Democracy for America believes the process should be as democratic as possible.”

In some states, the organization noted, it’s possible that the superdelegates will support the candidate who lost the primary or caucus. In Kansas, for instance, Democratic officials appear to support Clinton, but Obama won the state’s caucus.

But Rosen said he didn’t see a problem with the superdelegates.

“They’re not appointed to the job,” he said. “These are elected Democratic leaders. It’s not like they’re some super secret class of people. They’re Democratic officials. I have the feeling they’ll play a positive role in the process.”

Over the decades, the Democratic nominating process has undergone several changes.

After the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention, when Hubert Humphrey emerged with the party nomination despite not winning a single primary, the party conducted a study of how it selected its nominee. This resulted in several reforms designed to make the party more responsive to the will of the public. The number of primaries were expanded, and the way convention delegates were awarded was made proportional to their primary vote results. But the more open process resulted in two dark horse candidates for president, George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, and party officials didn’t like that, either. As a result, the superdelegates were created in the 1980s.

Unconventional issues

There’s still time for Obama or Clinton to wrap up the nomination before the Democratic National Convention.

“It’s quite obvious that Obama has considerable momentum,” Zimmerman said. “What appears to be going on is that Obama is gaining strength. People say Hillary is no longer the front-runner.”

But Clinton is well connected with the party elite, and the presumption is that she has the backing of a greater number of superdelegates.

Not all superdelegates have announced their support for either candidate, and it’s possible the undeclared superdelegates could break in Obama’s favor, Brown said.

He noted that some of the remarks made by former President Bill Clinton while campaigning for his wife angered some establishment Democrats.

“[Undeclared] superdelegates may be less inclined to support Clinton,” he said. “In normal times, under normal circumstances, you would expect them to break for her.”

Another wrinkle involves Michigan and Florida, which have no delegates, the result of a punishment from Democratic party leadership for moving their primaries before Super Tuesday. Candidates agreed not to campaign in those states, and only Clinton appeared on the Michigan ballot. She won Michigan and Florida, and now her campaign will likely push for these delegates to be seated at the Democratic convention. This could lead to a fight within the party over whether the delegates from Michigan and Florida should be counted.

“In 1972, there was a similar mess at the Democratic convention,” Brown recalled.

No matter how close the Democratic race is going into the convention, the party’s presidential candidate will be voted on and nominated unanimously, with dissension kept mostly out of the public eye, Zimmerman said.

“They want to show that the party is united,” Zimmerman said. “The Democratic party is much more factional than the Republican party, but once they pick a candidate, they do seem to rally together. The Republicans are always more organized.”

The average person has little understanding of the convention process, Zimmerman said.

“When do average voters begin to pay attention to presidential candidates? Two or three weeks before an election. The average person is not tuned in, and they don’t tune in until late. If you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you’re tuned in.”

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