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Should Democrats’ Superdelegates Not Be So Super?

The unfortunate headline roared “Democrats Fear Superdelegates Could Overrule Voters.”

[IMGCAP(1)]CNN isn’t the only media outlet to run with the storyline. Many others in the media, and more than a few Democrats, also have raised the specter of superdelegates imposing their will on the party and selecting a nominee who didn’t win the most pledged delegates in primaries and caucuses.

Democratic insider (and Roll Call contributing writer) Donna Brazile says she’ll resign from the Democratic National Committee, and even quit the party, if superdelegates determine her party’s nominee. Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum warns of a “backroom deal.”

Liberal blogger Chris Bowers promises, “I will resign as local precinct captain, resign my seat on the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee, immediately cease all fundraising for all Democrats, refuse to endorse the Democratic ‘nominee’ for any office, and otherwise disengage from the Democratic Party.”

“The best function of superdelegates would be to legitimize a candidate who already had won the majority of Democratic delegates,” said an editorial in the Feb. 14 Los Angeles Times.

Both Democrats and the media might stop huffing and puffing and pause for a moment to think about superdelegates, the “democratic” way of selecting nominees and the importance of playing by the existing rules.

First, superdelegates aren’t anonymous, invisible political insiders whose only interests are their own. More than a third of them (286 of 796) are Democratic governors or Members of the House and Senate, officeholders who have received the overwhelming support of Democratic voters in their races for office. Another 23 are former party leaders in and out of Congress.

The single largest bloc of superdelegates (411) is members of the DNC, veteran political players who have worked long and hard for their party and have demonstrated their commitment to it.

The image of these superdelegates as 19th-century party hacks who are making decisions in smoke-filled rooms to enrich themselves or to protect their power is sheer nonsense and the sort of stereotyping that rank-and-file Democrats would, under other circumstances, find offensive.

These Democrats aren’t outside the party. They are the party.

Second, superdelegates are not extra-legal participants in the nominating process. Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns knew the rules of the race from the beginning, and superdelegates were part of them. (This is also why the convention cannot seat “delegates” won in the Florida and Michigan primaries, a move that would benefit New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, since the DNC ruled that delegates were not at stake in both primaries and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign made important tactical decisions on that assumption.)

Third, and probably most important, the fundamental argument that pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses meet some sort of ideal “democratic” standard is seriously flawed.

Texas gets 193 pledged delegates at this year’s Democratic National Convention, or 5.93 percent of the 3,253 total pledged delegates. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Texas’ estimated population for 2007 was 23,904,380, or 7.93 percent of the population of the 2007 estimated population of the entire United States (301,621,157).

In other words, Texas is significantly underrepresented at the Democratic convention in Denver. Other states are underrepresented and overrepresented, depending on whether they benefit from the party’s allocation formula, which gives added weight to each state’s vote for the Democratic presidential nominee in the past three elections. This, of course, is both an understandable and “undemocratic” factor in calculating a state’s pledged delegates.

Massachusetts has 93 pledged delegates at the convention, while Georgia has 87 and Virginia has only 83. Yet Georgia had a population of more than 9.5 million in 2007 according to the Census Bureau, while Virginia’s population was more than 7.7 million and Massachusetts’ was less than 6.5 million.

Georgia had more than 3 million more people than Massachusetts yet has fewer pledged delegates because of the allocation rules.

Three U.S. territories (American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands) and Democrats Abroad together account for 17 delegates. That’s more than seven states or the District of Columbia have at the convention — even though the three territories don’t cast electoral votes for president, and Democrats outside of the United States at the time of the election cast their ballots in their individual home states, not as a discrete entity.

Letting those 17 delegates help pick the party’s nominee clearly “dilutes” the votes of the other states.

Finally, it’s easy after the fact to second-guess rules — rules that often are adopted in response to an earlier problem. Not every rule is of a capricious nature or intended for some evil purpose. The question is whether they are inherently unfair or unreasonable.

Nobody has yet complained that the Democratic nomination for president could be determined by independents or Republicans, though that certainly is the case. Yet the votes of loyal party members undoubtedly have been diluted in those states that have open or semi-open primaries.

Superdelegates will, no doubt, consider a number of factors in deciding how to cast their votes, from their own judgment to the electability of the candidates to the wishes of the folks back home. That’s as it should be. But whining about backroom deals and democratic principles isn’t the way to go, and instead of creating chaos, superdelegates could ultimately add a measure of good sense to the party’s selection process.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.

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