Democratic primary: Quiet battle for the other delegates
Superdelegates, or party professionals, could play a decisive role in the outcome of the Democratic race.
As the Democratic presidential contest grinds its way through primary states and caucuses, the quest for "superdelegates" – a fifth of the total number of delegates available in the nominating process – is picking up intensity.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Call it the shadow primary. It's not played out in hard-edged debates or ad wars on the air or even at the ballot box, but rather in private conversations among party professionals – senators, House members, governors, former congressional leaders. If the race stays close, these 796 delegates could tip the outcome at the national convention in August.
"This year, they could end up being decisive," says Rhodes Cook, an independent political analyst.
But even before the convention, or the crush of primaries on Super Tuesday, the ebb and flow of the party's professional delegates is having an impact on the race. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's success in corralling endorsements from 81 superdelegates fed the image of invincibility early in her campaign. But this week's nod by Senate Democratic icon Edward Kennedy to her top rival, Sen. Barack Obama, could rock that calculation.
Unlike Republicans, who give automatic delegate status only to members of the Republican National Committee, Democrats give substantial representation to party professionals.
"It was really a tip of the hat to the criticism that there were no longer smoke-filled rooms with wizened political leaders sitting down making the great compromises to be sure they'd win, so let's bring in some of the pros and let them have a voice in this," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the deputy Democratic leader, at a Monitor breakfast Tuesday.
The Constitution is silent on how presidential candidates should be nominated. "The Founding Fathers assumed that states would assign their electoral votes to individuals with strong local and national reputations," says Richard Baker, the US Senate historian.
The rise of party politics changed that calculation. Early in the 19th century, party congressional delegations, by default, selected the nominees. The chaotic election of 1824, which gave rise to the modern Democratic Party, also led to the creation of party nominating conventions outside Congress.
But the role of lawmakers and other party professionals in presidential nominating conventions has shifted over time. The nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not won a single Democratic primary, in 1968 set off a backlash among party activists. The primary and caucus system they set up, including rule changes as to who could attend the Democratic Party's national convention, marginalized the party professionals, including members of Congress.
Party leaders say it contributed to a landslide loss for Democratic nominee George McGovern in 1972. "One of the major unintended consequences of reform was that members of Congress and other elected officials of the party weren't going to convention anymore," says Rep. David Price (D) of North Carolina, who helped draft party reforms creating a system of unpledged degates, now known as superdelegates, in the 1970s.