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We Own You, Now Shut Up

February 25th, 2008 · 1 Comment

Erstwhile roomie and economist extraordinaire Glen Whitman wonders why the political parties don’t give extra weight to delegates from swing states and less to those, like California, that are all-but-guaranteed to go Democratic in November regardless of the nominee. Glen considers the obvious answer, then rejects it:

One answer is that it would seem undemocratic. But that doesn’t really fly, because (a) the electoral college itself is undemocratic in some sense, yet both parties now allocate delegates approximately in line with the college’s electors; and (b) the Democrats have a large number of super-delegates (about 20% of the total) who are free to vote however they want, regardless of primary and caucus results, and the Republicans have a smaller number of delegates with similar freedom (though they aren’t usually called “super-delegates”).

I think it’s worth bearing in mind, first, that while the superdelegates are what you might call structurally undemocratic, it’s also clear that they’re extremely hesitant to actually wield their power in a way that frustrates the perceived popular will. It seems to be pretty widely agreed, for instance, that if Obama entered the convention with a non-trivial lead in pledged delegates, the superdelegates would not be willing to tip the balance in Hillary’s favor, even if there were enough nominal Hillary supporters to do so.

More to the point, though, I think what matters here is the precise way in which it would be undemocratic. That is, it would essentially tell states: “You will be punished for the reliability of your support. Because you have shown we can take you for granted, your voice within the party will count for less.” Now, to some extent, if superdelegates did exercise their power by voting strategically to reverse the result of a very close primary, they would be implicitly doing the same thing. But to make it overt in this way would, I think, clearly alienate some of the party’s staunchest activists. You might be able to make an abstract case that the extant system is already undemocratic in this or that way, and so it’s all the same, but that doesn’t mean it would play the same way in the minds of voters—or of the party faithful they’re counting on to keep the state-level machinery running smoothly.

Tags: Horse Race Politics



1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Julian Elson // Feb 27, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Moreover, it wouldn’t be reliable toward achieving its supposed purpose. Suppose that the state of Swingland is 10% hardcore Republicans, 80% independents, and 10% hardcore Democrats. Suppose that only the hardcore Democrats vote in Democratic primaries or caucuses. It could be that Bob the Moderate would be the best candidate to carry the state of Swingland, while Joe the Far Lefty would be the most likely candidate to win the Swingland Democratic primary.