As one of the principle drafters of the rules by which the Democratic Party selects its presidential candidates, I see an increasing possibility, now even approaching a probability, that for the first time since 1952 we will see a Democratic National Convention second convention ballot. And as the person who drafted the initial rule in 1982 that created “super delegates,” (and myself served as a super delegate) it may very well be that for the first time this class of delegates may prove to be decisive. The primary calendar and mandated proportional representation may drive us to this point.
The new “front-loaded” calendar has created a de facto national
primary on Super Tuesday, March 3, with 14 contests throughout the
country — Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine,
Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas,
Utah, Vermont, Virginia — that will elect 1336 delegates, almost 40% of the total pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee on July 13th. To be nominated on the first ballot a candidate needs 1990 delegate votes.
A large presidential field with the party’s 15% proportional rule
ensures that several candidates will have significant numbers of
delegates after March 3. Thus it will be challenging for any
candidate to be nominated on the first ballot. At this point, it appears that five candidates may have significant committed delegates blocks after March 3rd. In Iowa on February 3rd, five candidates indeed earned delegates. Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire may produce equally muddled results.
On a second ballot, 740 pragmatic party and elected officials –
unpledged ”super delegates” — will vote in addition to the 3800 first
ballot pledged delegates. The process would likely focus on the choice
of a strong consensus candidate to defeat Trump.
Super Tuesday thus is in effect the first-ever geographically national
primary, spanning all regions and representing all-party
demographics. Because of the party’s proportional representation
rule, several candidates will likely emerge with significant delegate
numbers on that day. The field may winnow down, but it will still likely be robust.
Of course, there will be other primaries following March 3rd. An
additional 577 delegates will be selected in Florida, Ohio, Illinois
and Arizona on March 17th; 543 on April 28th in the Northeast; just
256 in May, and 167 in June. But what seems likely is that the Party may continue to have a multi-candidate field by the end of April, when 90% of the delegates have already been selected.
The bottom line is that in this unique confluence — a front-loaded
calendar with an early “national” primary, proportional
representation, and a multi-candidate field — it is distinctly
possible that no candidate will come near the magic number of
1990 delegates needed for nomination on the first ballot. And if there is a chance that the convention may be brokered, there is little incentive for candidates with significant delegate blocks to withdraw. They would very much want to be part of the process that emerges to select the nominee.
Therefore, there is an increasingly more realistic chance of a second ballot, with the additional 740 new super delegates, where 2250 of the new 4500 total would be needed to nominate. As elected and party officials
(governors, senators, members of congress, big-city mayors, party DNC
members), super delegates will tend to be pragmatic and in close touch
with their constituencies, more concerned with electability than
As a member of the commission that created super delegates, I drafted
the original provision, ratified by the party, that created them. A
core concern was to ensure that the voice of officials close to our
voters would be at the table.
At the time, I was accused by some in the party of trying to block
the nomination of “a George McGovern”. I responded “You’ve got the
wrong George. We’re trying to block a George Wallace, not a George
McGovern.” In other words, if the party was at an impasse, we wanted
to prevent the nomination of an unelectable demagogue by adding to the
decision process the judgment of experienced party leaders.
So, what should the factors be in a possible second ballot for the Democratic Party to beat Donald Trump? If one candidate has demonstrated a national
mandate, the second ballot could be a perfunctory ratification. But
absent that clear national mandate (a plurality not close to a majority), super delegates will be put to the test. While the candidate with the most pledged delegates should have top consideration, second ballot delegates should consider the aggregate primaries’ popular vote and the results of their home state primaries. Another important part of the equation will be national and state polling data, guides to who can win in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the states that will decide the election.
Above all, the raison d’etre of “super delegates” is to help nominate
a consensus candidate who reflects the values of the party while being
most electable. Given Trump’s existential threat to America, that
must be the central guiding principle for the Democratic second
Mark Siegel teaches at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He is a
former Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee.