Supers on a Slippery Slope

By Kellyn Brown

Ed Tinsley, so far, is the only Montana superdelegate to have pledged his support to a Democratic presidential candidate. The Lewis and Clark County commissioner has endorsed Illinois Sen. Barack Obama – in a vote weeks premature.

Obama is a formidable politician, but with the race between him and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton still undecided, Tinsley should have waited. Instead, superdelegates nationwide have opted for impatience or defied their constituents’ wishes all together. And critics who contend insiders will decide the party’s nomination, not voters, are vindicated.

The Democratic Party created superdelegates in 1982 to give the party’s upper echelon a say in the nomination. It also assured that those same rank-and-file politicians showed up to the party’s convention to stump for a chosen candidate. The supers haven’t tipped the balance in a close Democratic race for almost 25 years. If it happens again, there could be a minor uprising.

And while many experienced pundits argue that the Democratic Party would never allow itself to be fractured by a contentious, drawn-out convention where the nomination is decided by a few in a backroom deal, the general public is less optimistic. In a Rasmussen poll released last week, 39 percent of adult Americans said it was “very likely” the nomination would be brokered at the convention. An additional 34 percent said it was “somewhat likely.”

And who can blame them? As the battle over delegates has become a very public tug of war, each new superdelegate who pledges his or her vote to Obama or Clinton makes the process appear that much more elitist.

On the liberal blog Left in the West, Jay Stevens of Missoula has led a campaign urging Montana’s superdelegates to support the winner of Montana’s primary. And whether you agree with his politics, it’s hard to argue with his logic: Vote with the populace you represent.

Yet many supers, such as first-term Rep. Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, feel that they have the right to make up their own independent minds. Shea-Porter is supporting Obama despite the fact that her New Hampshire constituents voted for Clinton. She argued in a recent interview: “It came to a virtual draw in our state. I think it’s a moot question.”

I would counter that the razor-thin margin separating the candidates is just another reason to leave the race up to those casting their votes in the ballot booth or caucus, not to party insiders. To be fair, according to a count by Newsweek, more Clinton-backing supers have gone against the wishes of their respective states or districts than true for Obama. Meanwhile, both candidates heavily court the superdelegates while downplaying the possibility of them having a role in the nomination.

To Montana’s credit, as of this writing Tinsley is the only one of the state’s seven superdelegates to have pledged his support to a candidate. Other supers, such as Gov. Brian Schweitzer and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, have said they will wait, and that Montana’s primary will influence their votes.

This, I hope, begins to be viewed as the rule instead of the exception. Throughout this nominating season, voter turnout has continued to smash records. If party leaders choose a candidate who hasn’t garnered the most primary votes the whole system will reek of disenfranchisement. And those same voters who have showed a renewed interest in politics will opt to stay home.

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