Democrats seek to shorten primaries, rein in superdelegates

A Democratic party commission has recommended rule changes that would delay the start of the caucuses and primaries – avoiding the kind of drawn-out primary battle seen in 2008 – and check the power of the superdelegates.

Chris Carlson/AP/File
Then-Sen. Barack Obama (l.) gestures for time as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton responds to a question during a Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles in this January 31, 2008 file photo.

Remember those interminable Democratic primaries of 2008, with Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton duking it out well into spring?

The Democrats want to avoid a rerun, and a party commission has recommended fixes to the system: Change the voting rules for “superdelegates” and delay the start of the caucuses and primaries until Feb. 1 at the earliest.

In 2008, the Democrats’ first nominating event, the Iowa caucuses, was held on Jan. 3, and the first primary, New Hampshire, was just five days later, on Jan. 8. The candidates’ final push for those crucial first contests overlapped with Christmas and New Year – not much fun for anybody.

As for the superdelegates, party higher-ups who could back whomever they wanted for the nomination, the commission proposed that they be required to vote for whomever their state has backed in its primary or caucus.

Party chair Tim Kaine, governor of Virginia, applauded the commission’s recommendations as “consistent with the goals of the Democratic Party and President Obama.”

“Openness, fairness, and accessibility are central to our ideals as Democrats, and the commission’s recommendations to reform the delegate selection process will ensure that voters’ voices and preferences are paramount to our process of nominating a presidential candidate,” Governor Kaine said in a statement Wednesday evening.

Next, the commission recommendations go to the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. But whether the proposals sail through is an open question.

“You never know what’s going to happen, in either party, because at every stage there are people with different views,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

He predicts the effort to delay the start of the process will succeed, but isn’t sure about reining in superdelegates, who represent 20 percent of the total delegate count. Many party activists think that proportion is too high, so perhaps a compromise will be forged, Mr. Sabato suggests.

Another element that may give party leaders pause is the fact that, despite the length of the contest, the Democrats did win the presidency in the end. Why mess with success? In fact, many people argue that the drawn-out contest between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton made Obama a better candidate, ultimately, and by forcing him to set up an electoral apparatus in all 50 states during the primaries, he was in excellent shape for the general.

Chances are the Democrats were going to win the 2008 election anyway, no matter how messy their nomination battle, given the state of the economy and unpopularity of the Republicans. So in the future, when the playing field isn’t so tilted, the Democrats want to make sure they give their nominee every best chance at ultimate victory – and that means a primary season that doesn’t drag on to the bitter end.


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