Forty years ago, violent protesters rioted in Chicago's Grant Park, near the International Amphitheater, the site of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Angry with a party poised to nominate Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey — a cautious liberal, viewed as too accommodating toward continuing the Vietnam War — aggrieved activists took to the streets. Little did they know their "whole world is watching" chants would commence a chain of events leading to the creation of the modern superdelegate and some big unintended consequences.
Democrats created the superdelegate slots to avoid politically ill-advised nominees, not to arbitrate between two popular choices. Yet politics often produces ironic twists, and 2008 leaves them in an unprecedented situation. Superdelegates will now play a role few ever contemplated. Originally created to avoid political risk, these kingmakers must now play Hamlet and make a decision that will cause intraparty political suffering irrespective of how this ends. How did we get here? Rewind to the summer of '68. In addition to protests and the Humphrey nomination, the Chicago convention also formed something called the McGovern-Fraser Commission (named after South Dakota Sen. George McGovern and Minnesota Rep. Donald Fraser). Responding to concerns that "party bosses," wielded too much power in the Windy City, the commission made a series of recommendations, creating a more open process of delegate selection and affirmative action guidelines. Once implemented, these new rules dramatically increased the number of states holding primaries as a more open way to select delegates.
But now fast forward to 1981. Party activists believed "the more open process" — and the nominees it produced — contributed to two of the worst presidential defeats in American political history: George McGovern in 1972, who lost the electoral vote 520-17 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, defeated 489-49. Openness conceived these ill-advised outcomes.
After Mr. Carter's disastrous defeat, Democrats created another panel charged with more rules tinkering: the Commission on Presidential Nominations (CPN), headed by former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt. Looking for the political equivalent of adult supervision, the CPN created the modern day superdelegate.
Some background figures are now in order. There are a total of 4,047 Democratic delegates. Of those, 795 are superdelegates — or about 20 percent of the total delegates and 40 percent of the 2,024 delegates needed to win a majority and the nomination. While the non-superdelegates get allocated or pledged through the primary or caucus system, the superdelegates are "unpledged," which means they pick their favorite for the nomination outside the primary and caucus process and can switch their allegiance at any time or stay uncommitted until the convention. According to RealClearPolitics, of the 795 superdelegates, 247 are committed to Hillary Clinton, 211 to Barack Obama and 343 remain uncommitted. The superdelegates break out as follows: 398 are Democratic National Committee members, 48 U.S. senators, 220 U.S. congressmen, 31 governors, 21 distinguished party leaders and 76 add-on delegates, awarded to particular states for strong Democratic performance. These numbers — even among the committed — will constantly shift (as superdelegate Rep. John Lewis demonstrated recently by changing his allegiance from Mrs. Clinton to Mr. Obama).
But superdelegates were not supposed to be this pivotal. As diarist Poblano writes on DailyKos.com, most envisioned their role as a kind of "break glass in case of emergency" function — ratifying the choice of pledged delegates or averting a catastrophic nominee, but not making THE decision.
So, here we are. Neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Obama can win the nomination based on the remaining pledged delegates up for grabs. The superdelegates will decide the party's standardbearer. Democrats structured their rules so that party elders could play a larger role navigating away from the rocks of damaging political choices. They were supposed to help the party avoid electoral injury and unify its constituencies.
But now those anointed to avert disaster may very well cause one. Superdelegates were never intended to play Hamlet. They were created to serve as a safety valve, not a political Solomon's sword.
Democrats would welcome their arbitration and expertise, for example, in choosing a new nominee in the event of a late-breaking scandal or another emergency. But forcing the superdelegates to choose between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama is a different and unprecedented role few contemplated. It could leave millions of Democrats bitterly disappointed and demoralized.