The Democratic Party wants to bury the 2016 hatchet before the 2020 presidential battle begins.
In Chicago this past weeked, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) voted to change the party’s presidential nominating process to reduce the power of party insiders.
In past presidential Democratic primary elections, roughly 700 “superdelegates” — mostly party activists and Democratic members of Congress — had a vote in the presidential nominating process, apart from the normal delegate process through elections like the Iowa caucuses. These superdelegates had complete freedom to vote for whomever they wanted, regardless of how the voters felt.
In the close Democratic presidential races in 2008 and 2016, the press closely tallied and monitored the loyalties of these superdelegates, which helped frame who was up and who was down. In 2016, Clinton already had hundreds of superdelegates in the bank before any votes had been cast.
But in the 2020 race, superdelegates will no longer have that role.
It’s odd in politics for party insiders to vote to reduce their own power, but they did so this past week in an effort to heal the deep wounds that emerged in the Bernie Sanders-vs.-Hillary Clinton primary when Sanders supporters felt, with some reason, the party establishment put their hand on the scale for Clinton.
"My north star from the beginning has been simple: We need to grow the party, unite our party, and restore people’s trust in our party."
The changes made by the DNC this past weekend make it nearly impossible for the Democratic Party’s top officials to overturn the party’s voters and stop an insurgent candidate, much like the Republican Party’s officials were largely powerless to stop Donald Trump, even though they mostly opposed his candidacy. (Republicans do not have superdelegates.)
Conventions begin with all the state delegates voting for the candidates the voters preferred. But the DNC’s move also slightly increases the chances of a brokered convention, where no nominee gets enough delegates on that first ballot. With so many Democrats expected to run in 2020 and Democratic primaries decided by proportional representation — as opposed to the winner-take-all Republican primaries — it will be harder for any Democratic candidate to win a majority of the delegates. (The last time this happened on the Democratic side was 1952.)
The superdelegate system could have helped push a candidate to the majority-delegate threshold if he or she were just short. But now, that option will no longer be available.
If Democrats go to the convention without any candidate able to get a majority of delegates on the first ballot, then the superdelegates become super again and can vote on the second ballot, which would be chaotic and similar to conventions of centuries past with smoke-filled backrooms deciding the nominee.
Why did the Democratic Party do this?
The passage of the reforms was a personal victory for DNC Chair Tom Perez and an attempt to prove himself to Bernie Sanders supporters — who largely supported Keith Ellison in the DNC chair race in 2017.
“My north star from the beginning has been simple: We need to grow the party, unite our party, and restore people’s trust in our party,” said Perez last Wednesday as he made the case for the reforms, which have been a focal point of his chairmanship since he took the reins in early 2017. “There are many, many voters who believe [superdelegates] affected the outcome [in 2016] and when people in the process feel like their candidates didn’t get a fair shake, that in turn shakes their confidence in the Democratic Party.”
Sanders praised the move on Saturday, calling it an important step in making the party “more open, democratic, and responsive to the input of ordinary Americans.” The DNC also urged states to adopt same-day registration to open Democratic primaries up to anyone who wants to vote in them.
Of course, there may still be some healing needed. Perez has raised the ire of the left wing of the party with his endorsement of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over democratic socialist challenger Cynthia Nixon. He has also faced criticism, including a protests last week in Chicago, over the DNC’s ever-shifting position on accepting donations from fossil-fuel interests.
Still, Perez’s successful push of the reforms delivered on a priority of the party’s more progressive wing.
That’s because superdelegates overwhelmingly sided with Clinton in 2016,609 to 47. Clinton won among elected delegates as well, but her edge in superdelegates early on in the race contributed to the narrative that her nomination was inevitable, Sanders allies argued.
Clinton’s superdelegate edge also fed in to the feelings among Sanders admirers that there was a broader effort by the “Democratic establishment” to hand the nomination to Clinton rather than letting the voters decide. Those suspicions were given credence when WikiLeaks published internal DNC emails in the summer of 2016 that showed party officials criticizing Sanders. That led to the party ousting DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and replacing her with Donna Brazile.
In 2017, Brazile then added more fuel to the fire by alleging that the Clinton campaign had been given a preferential financial arrangement with the campaign. “If the fight had been fair, one campaign would not have control of the party before the voters had decided which one they wanted to lead,” she wrote in her book Hacks: The Inside Story. “This was not a criminal act, but as I saw it, it compromised the party’s integrity.”
Interestingly, Brazile emerged as a passionate opponent to the reforms this past weekend. She argued that the voice of party leaders, especially people of color who had fought for decades for a seat at the table, would be disenfranchised by the move. During the vote on Saturday, she approached a VICE News reporter and shook her head, lamenting, “This is not Democracy.”
Some top Democrats strongly disagreed with that assessment. “It doesn’t disenfranchise anyone,” Lee Saunders, the president of the powerful union AFSCME, told the delegates on Saturday.
Ultimately, most of the Democratic delegates in Chicago agreed with the reform side. When it was clear that reform was going to win, the biggest opponents called for passing the superdelegate reforms through a voice vote so as to send a message of unity and avoid a divisive paper-ballot count.
“I do think this allows us to heal and move forward,” said DNC vice chair Michael Blake. “And I equally think that the fall of 2018 being a first national opportunity where everyone can exercise their energy simultaneously will be the next opportunity for us to heal.”
Cover image: Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. smile during a break of the NBC, YouTube Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)