Convention confusion and superdelegate dilemmas

Long compared to the Mondale-Hart showdown of 1984, the 2008 primaries are now drawing fascinating parallels to the election of 1980, in which Teddy Kennedy pursued his opposition to incumbent primary Jimmy Carter all the way to the convention. That year, Carter had swept most of the early voting states and assembled a very comfortable delegate lead; but in the spring public opinion started turning against the President because of the Iran hostage crisis and Kennedy pulled together a string of impressive victories in important late-voting states (one of which was... Pennsylvania).

Unfortunately for Kennedy, this momentum came too late to get him near Carter's delegate total -- which led to the Massachusetts Senator's demand that elected delegates be released of their pledge on the convention floor and that they be allowed to vote for whomever they want. Kennedy was hoping to capitalize on the fear that Carter would be a sure loser in the fall, but he failed to snatch the nomination away from Carter and the Democratic Party never fully recovered from the divisions of that summer.

28 years later, and it is Clinton who is in Kennedy's shoes (a slightly ironic turn of events), hoping that unforeseen events weaken Obama so much that he appears unelectable by August. And Clinton has a weapon Kennedy did not have in 1980: superdelegates. Since Obama does not have a path to getting a majority based only on the vote of pledged delegates, Clinton can always hope that superdelegates would be receptive to last-minute arguments... and do so within the rules since they are not pledged to a candidate.

In this context, the dilemma superdelegates are facing never ceases to be fascinating, especially when one considers the number of rationales are being advances to justify superdelegates selection their candidate: They have to respect the majority of pledged delegates, they have to respect the will of voters in their district, in their state... or they can just do what they want. Could Kennedy and Kerry vote for Obama after their state gave a big winning margin to Clinton, for example, and this at a time the Obama campaign was trying to get Clinton supers form district that had gone to Obama to switch?

Now, it is Bill Richardson who is facing similar questions. He had declared a month ago that superdelegates should respect the will of voters. New Mexico voted for Clinton and Richardson endorsed Obama. Note that this is not necessarily all contradictory: Richardson did not say that superdelegates should respect the will of voters they are representing; his statement could also be referring to the will of voters as it is calculated nationally. The trouble with that definition is that Clinton is not entirely out of the running to take some sort of national lead, at least in the popular vote. But like many superdelegates Richardson wants to bring the race to its end -- and that means pushing the frontrunner's train out of the station.

So is a concensus forming among superdelegates that the "will of voters" they have to represent is the national will rather than their state's? Not so fast. Here is Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota who is now declaring that he will vote for Clinton at the convention if the New York Senator wins his state on June 3rd -- despite Johnson's having endorsed Barack Obama. There have been other supers announcing that they will tie their vote to their state's decision (for example the Maine DNC Chairman) but most of them had not endorsed anyone beforehand.

To settle all these disagreements, a new plan is circulating right now for superdelegates to meet before the convention and thus settle on the nominee weeks before Denver. Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen appears to be one of the main proponents of this proposal. From a National Journal interview:

At that point, after the primaries are over on June 3, there is really nothing left but the superdelegates. And what I'm saying is that they need to step up -- I'm one of them -- act our age and make a choice, and let the party get on with it. I think the way to do that and make it happen is to actually call them together -- not in a convention with all the hoopla and the sideshows and so on -- but in a businesslike meeting somewhere they can get to over a weekend, and maybe hear from the candidates and get people on the record.

Talk about back room deals. My first reflex was to think this was a very unlikely scenario. But this plan appears to be gaining traction, with a number of Democratic figures hinting at its feasibility. So don't rule out the possibility that of a mini-convention some time after June 3rd. That it is even being discussed points to the absence of standards by which to judge the legitimacy of the supers' decisions. Both camps have their view of what is proper for a super to do, and each view is largely derived from what suits their interests. Democrats can only hope that the story doesn't end like in 1980.


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