What’s a Superdelegate To Do?

A map for choosing between the candidates.

Imagine for a moment you’re a member of what’s becoming the most scrutinized group of political players in years: the 796 superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention. You are unbound by any rule or custom in choosing whether to vote for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. It’s increasingly likely that you and your fellow supers—senators, House members, governors, state party chairs, national committee members, and other worthies—will hold the key to the nomination. So, how do you decide whom to support?

Let’s assume you’re determined to apply the soundest principles of fairness and justice (I know, I know, you’re a political animal, but indulge me). Let’s also assume that you’ve somehow put on one of John Rawls’ “veils of ignorance,” which means you’re making your decision free of knowing which candidate would benefit from it. What, then, are the questions you need to answer?

Are you more like a presidential elector or an elected legislator? Whatever the original intention of the founders, presidential electors—the 538 folks who actually cast the votes that elect the president—are supposed to be automatons. (Here’s my satiric look at what happens when they refuse to act the part.) As far back as the first contested election, an angry Pennsylvania voter wrote to the Gazette of the United States, “What, do I choose Samuel Miles to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson shall be President? No! I choose him to act, not to think.”

When the 2000 election ended in a dead heat, a Bush elector wrapped in a veil of ignorance might have decided to abstain or to vote for a third candidate, on the ground that no clear winner could conceivably be determined in so close a contest. If two of the 271 electors had done that, Bush would have been deprived of an electoral majority, and the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives. But not one did; they were following the choice of the voters who had chosen them. By this standard, the job of the superdelegates is to follow the will of the voters, not to substitute their judgment. But don’t be fooled into thinking the problem is solved if you decide to do this. There’s a trickier question lurking:

Which voters will you follow? Suppose you’re a member of the House of Representatives and your district voted for Obama, your state voted for Clinton, and Obama has won the votes of more primary and caucus participants nationally. Whose will are you supposed to reflect? Does it make a difference if you’re a governor or senator (follow the state?) or a national committee member (reflect the national total)? Suppose at the end of the process, one candidate has more delegates and the other has won more votes? (Let’s not even think about whether you plan to count the votes of Florida and Michigan Democrats when you figure out the total vote.)

How decisive must the vote be? In 1984, the spread in pledged delegates between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart was narrow, but Mondale had more of them than Hart did and had won a small plurality of the total votes cast. The superdelegates, in their first appearance at a Democratic convention, provided a substantial part of his 1,000-vote margin when the first and only ballot was taken. In the five elections since, the winning Democratic candidate wrapped up the nomination long before the convention.

With both Obama and Clinton likely short of a majority this time, should a superdelegate have a standard for deciding whether the primaries provided a clear picture of Democrats’ preference? Is any margin enough, even one or two or 10 delegates? What about the popular vote? Right now, Obama has a 700,000 plurality out of 18.3 million votes cast, if you don’t count Florida and Michigan; a 409,000 plurality out of some 20 million if you count Florida but not Michigan (where his name was not on the ballot); and a plurality of about 80,000 votes out of 20 million plus if you throw in both Florida and Michigan. Suppose the voting ends with the candidates half a percentage point apart? That happened in 1960, 1968, and 2000. So, maybe you’d better treat it as a distinct possibility, and ask:

Edmund Burke

How should a free agent decide? Let’s say you’ve decided that there’s simply no clear guidance from the Democratic rank and file. Or maybe you’ve decided to follow Edmund Burke, who in his famous 1774 address to the electors of Bristol argued that his job was not simply to follow what his constituents wanted. “Your representative owes you,” he wrote, “not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” This is the theme of John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, which pays tribute to politicians who stood against popular will. More to the point, it is what the Democrats had in mind when they created superdelegates in the first place in 1982, as a counterbalance to earlier reforms that had more or less turned the nomination process over to the voters. The idea was that the new delegates would act the way U.S. senators were originally supposed to act: as the saucer in which the hot coffee of factional emotion was to be cooled, as George Washington imagined it.

OK, Burke-lover, what now? Do you consult your fellow superdelegates? The collective wisdom of political pros should count for something. Then again, look across the aisle for a moment. Is the lack of enthusiasm among congressional Republicans for John McCain a sign that they doubted his temperament and judgment? Or did they not like him for calling them out on spending, earmarks, and K Street, Jack Abramoff-style corruption?

If you decide to heed only your own judgment and conscience, you may still be a superdelegate in search of a standard. Suppose you think that Obama is more likely to win, but Clinton has more of what it takes to be a good president? Suppose you think Obama presents more of a risk and more of a hope, or you admire Clinton but are bothered by the dynastic aspect of her candidacy? And if the veil of ignorance were to slip every now and then, how much will your calculations be affected by the consequences for our own political future?

Most Democrats, I suspect, will not find it necessary to engage with these questions even as a thought exercise: They know whom they favor, and they will take up the arguments that best serve their candidate. But for a genuinely undecided superdelegate, one hope must surely dominate: For God’s sakes, let’s hope the primaries produce a clear winner!