What Should Matter More To Superdelegates? The Popular Vote or the Pledged Delegates?

As the Democratic primary season is winding down, Barack Obama has an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates.  Because of the nature of this lead the race is being declared over and done with in his favor.  It makes a lot of sense to think that if the superdelegates were to overturn a clear mandate for the first African American nominee they would devestatingly alienate the incredibly enthusiastic African American and youth voters who have been galvanized by Obama’s candidacy.  A figure that left wing idealists of many ethnicities and colors see as potentially embodying in his nomination a landmark of social progress cannot be denied such a nomination by the will of party bosses without causing deeply bitter feelings and accusations that the Democratic party thereby takes a deeply undemocratic turn.

Now, in this brief essay, I want to ask whether the superdelegates voting in a way contrary to the pledged delegates really would be an undemocratic gesture.  Why should the pledged delegate count be taken as the truest measure of the will of the people?  A couple of days ago there was an excellent profile in the politico  of the lawyer Obama’s employed to master the delegate rules and maximize his campaign’s delegate total. Delegates in the Democratic primaries do not exactly represent raw vote totals. Sometimes districts get disproportionately more delegates than neighboring districts in their own states because in those districts the Democrats have in the past turned voted more heavily Democratic in previous elections. Sometimes quirks of math make for uneven delegate distribution. For example, in a district with only 4 delegates, a 59%-41% margin in favor of one candidate over the other results not in 3 delegates for the winner but a tie in which both candidates get 2 delegates. I think in general proportional delegation is a far fairer and more representative way to allocate delegates than winner take all set ups like the electoral college because proportional delegation more accurately tracks the will of the people in a state. Why should a candidate who gets only 60% of a state’s votes get 100% of its delegates? The problem with our general presidential elections is not the use of the delegates in the electoral college—its that the electors in almost all the states do not proportion their delegates in a way representative of their outcomes. Lately Hillary Rodham Clinton has noted that with Republican rules, she would have already won this primary battle. That does not mean however that that would have been a fairer measure than proportional delegation is giving us now. I think it would be a worse one, frankly.

But, proportional delegation as presently set up comes with these quirks in which quite unfairly a 59-41% split in some districts yields a decidedly unrepresentative 2-2 tie in delegates. Now it is to Obama’s credit as a politician (or to his team’s credit anyway) that his campaign was shrewd enough and gifted in foresight and calculation enough to run up the maximum delegate totals it could by pouring its resources as efficiently as possible into the regions where delegate rules meant that a lost district could be turned into a tie or a big win meant more delegates than a big win elsewhere in the state. But does this shrewdness translate into legitimacy as “the people’s choice?” Not necessarily at all.

David Plouffe recently stressed that even though Obama is winning the popular vote contest that superdelegates should not take that into account but only take into account the pledged delegate score since those were the rules the campaigns campaigned under. Their campaigns were designed to rack up pledged delegate totals and not popular votes. But why should the superdelegates care about campaign strategies? Just because the Obama campaign sought to rack up the most pledged delegates it could by gaming the system as well as it could does not mean that they couldn’t also put efforts into genuinely being the candidate chosen by the most people. And it doesn’t mean that a superdelegate should see their victories tallied up in delegate rich pockets as necessarily indicative of the will of the people. By the rules, their shrewdness in attaining pledged delegates is already rewarded in pledged delegates. Superdelegates are free to take in other considerations with respect to what legitimately represents the will of the people and what legitimately represents the good of the party. When the superdelegates see that the popular vote totals are far narrower than the pledged delegate race—which was essentially over before March 4 even—-why shouldn’t they take that to mean that the will of the democratic party is split, regardless of how that is reflected in the pledged delegate count?

One reason to think the superdelegates should just endorse the pledged delegate results is that it is unfair to caucus states which take a smaller sample of the population to determine delegates. Since caucuses occur in a narrower time-window and require a greater time commitment proportionally fewer people show up. In this respect, Obama’s campaign has a solid case to make that it put resources into caucus states expecting their delegates to be proportional to those in popular vote states. If the popular vote was the primary metric under consideration and not delegates then the caucus states wouldn’t even have caucuses since such would lead to under-representation of their state in the total popular tally. Caucus states and the Obama campaign which put great resources and strategy into them deserve to be given the equal consideration that primary states did. It is reasonable to assume, without doing the numbers, that were we to extrapolate the caucus vote totals to a more equivalent representation of total voters in those states to the representation in other states, then Obama’s popular vote lead would increase significantly.

So even though I don’t think it’s any more legitimate or democratic to consider sacrosanct the results of districts where mathematical idiosyncracies misrepresent the will of the people of a given district, I do think superdelegates should pay more attention to the pledged delegates to the popular vote. But three further challenges must be considered before settling on the opinion that the superdelegate ratification of Obama as Democratic nominee is sufficiently democratic to be considered fair. Are caucuses sufficiently representative of the people’s will? Caucuses favor party activists more willing to commit time, more willing to proclaim openly their support, and less susceptible to peer pressure in standing by their decision. Would primaries in states with caucuses really produce popular vote verdicts of similar percentages to caucuses? If Texas is any indication, a state where they prominently held both a primary and a caucus, the answer is no. Obama lost the popular vote in the state but dominated in the caucus percentages enough to net more delegates total from the state. Take out the caucuses and replace them with primaries and do more of his wins turn to losses? Does more of his popular vote total move into Clinton’s column instead? We don’t know definitively, but I’m afraid that would likely happen.

So, is this democratic? Is it fair? I think it is an acceptable situation because a political party in the United States is in some sense a “private” institution. The selection of a nominee is different than the selection of an office holder. If we are to be truly democratic in our elections, selecting office holders our government must be as democratic as possible, showing no favoritism to party activists or traditionally active voters over casual ones, etc. There should be no party bosses reaching in to decide elections to offices. But a party is a party and not a government institution. The Democratic party has every right to maintain a little hierarchy within its structure and reward those who are more committed to their party with opportunities like caucuses to show their commitment and have it count more. They are open in allowing any one to caucus. That the greater commitment involved requires a little more from their voters only allows those more committed to the party to have a greater say. Similarly all districts in any state are welcome to vote democratic. Rewarding party loyalty with greater say in future nominees to those districts is similarly fair and so I say, “more power” to those districts with a little extra representation in pledged delegates. And since the superdelegates are only superdelegates because along the way they’ve been voted into leadership roles by other members of the party, again the Democratic party is remaining at its core democratic even though it is introducing hierarchical structures that allow a little more say to those who are a little (or, in the case of many superdelegates, a whole lot) more committed to the cause of their party.

I think that the introduction of these hierarchical dimensions is fair for parties. In general elections, every vote should count the same and the voting procedures should be far more normalized. But the party seems legitimate in its weighting pledged delegates to reflect party loyalty and its use of caucuses for party building and for giving special say to the most committed party members. I also think though that along this same logic, the superdelegates have every right to break with the pledged delegates and favor popular vote totals with their votes if they disagree with their judgment. The more committed activists have had their extra say with their extra proportion of pledged delegates. If the total pledged delegates are not enough to seal a nomination and a superdelegate wants to use his or her extra say to vote against that nomination, that’s as fair as the caucuses and disproportionate delegation that went in to creating the initial pledged delegate total. And if enough superdelegates are willing to overrule the pledged delegates, then that means there is a solid enough agreement to overcome the pledged delegates’ current advantage, and so that’s an accomplishment of great support in favor of the candidate who lost the pledged delegates.

So, even though if I were a superdelegate, I would not overrule the nomination of Barack Obama personally, I think they’re entitled to. Fortunately, enough of them will accept the judgment of the pledged delegates (and, incidentally, the legitimate current popular vote total taken from the officially sanctioned contests) and informally ratify Obama’s nomination in a matter of weeks. But, I don’t begrudge Hillary at all her appeal (in general) to the closeness of the popular vote as a justification to be reconsidered by the superdelegates. I don’t think it’s just games with math. Yes, her campaign only emphasizes the math that favors her. But any campaign would do this and it’s unnecessary to demand her to do otherwise. There is a legit way to read the math that says the superdelegates are legit in using their superifluence to overturn the superinfluence of party activists in caucuses. It’s also a legit reading of the math to say, the pledged delegates and the actual popular vote lead in legitimate contests (i.e. contests not in Michigan or Florida this year) should be ultimate.

Both campaigns have a defensible case. There’s not a simple answer to what the superdelegates should do and there’s no rule that tells them to favor one metric over another.

Your thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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