Super delegates. Previously just window dressing — a way to assure that the party’s leadership showed up at the Democratic convention — this time they matter. They could determine who will be the next president of the United States. Yes, Senator John McCain standing in the way, but both the remaining Democratic candidates have a better than even chance of defeating him. And with the possibility that neither Senator Barack Obama nor Senator Hillary Clinton will show up in Denver with enough delegates to seize the nomination, the votes of the remaining uncommitted super delegates matters a lot.
The super delegates are members of Congress along with past and present Democratic party leaders. There’s a lot of theories as to what has and will drive them to one candidate or the other. Personal loyalty. Who they consider the most electable in November. Who their constituents supported in the primaries. Who “won” the primaries.
What hasn’t been mentioned much, but should be a significant factor, is which potential nominee will help Democrats down ticket: in elections for United States Senator and Representative; for Governor and State Legislator. There’s a lot at stake in what happens around the country in these races. And the super delegates should be, and many no doubt are, very aware of them.
Consider: more than a dozen of the House seats Democrats won in 2006 were traditionally Republican seats in which the incumbent had ethics problems. Those seats are vulnerable in 2008. Super delegates are going to want a presidential candidate who can help the party hold them.
Or consider the importance of state elections. The governors and legislators elected in 2008 are likely to still be in office when redistricting comes around in a few years. Super delegates are going to want to make sure Democrats are drawing the lines in as many states as possible.
Does the presidential candidate really influence these down ticket races? Absolutely. For example:
In 1972, Cathy O’Neill was seeking to become the first woman elected to California’s State Senate. The incumbent was a long time GOP legislator, the Vice Chair of the Senate Rules Committee. Conservative Democrats in the south of the district outnumbered the more liberal partisans in the north. Republicans in the district were more moderate than in other parts of the state. Ms. O’Neill had a real chance of winning. The Democratic presidential nominee that year was George McGovern. On his way to a historic defeat nationally, he drove many conservative and moderate Democrats to vote Republican. Ms. O’Neill lost by less than one percent — about 1,000 votes. (Full disclosure: I was Ms. O’Neill’s press secretary in that campaign).
Jump forward eight years. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan is facing off against the incumbent President, Jimmy Carter. Governor Reagan wins so many Eastern and Midwest states that President Carter concedes the election before the polls close in California. Hundreds of voters leave their polling places without casting ballots. San Fernando Congressman Jim Corman loses his seat, again, by less than 1,000 votes. Steve Afriat loses a nearby Assembly race by 600 votes.
Presidential coattails are real. And when a race is close, they can make the difference. And in every election there are close races.
Which means super delegates need to apply the “picture” test: will it help a local candidate to appear on the front page of their district’s newspapers alongside the Democratic presidential nominee?
If that nominee is Senator Obama, the answer is, in virtually every part of the country, a resounding “yes.” His appeal to independents and swing Republicans is well established and is his ability to inspire voters. He casts an aura virtually every Democratic candidate in the country would to appear.
If Senator Clinton is in the picture, however, there’s a lot more candidates who would answer is “no.” Senator Clinton, fairly or not, is a polarizing figure in American politics. While her presence would greatly benefit some candidates, it would cost others votes. Significantly, the districts in which her presence helps are more likely to vote Democratic anyway. It’s in the swing seats where her presence could be a detriment.
Super delegates need to think about which candidate can win in November. They also need to take a serious look at the coattails each offers the party. When they do, I think the majority will move to Senator Obama.