It's no secret that much of the Democratic establishment fears Howard Dean. For months, rumors have abounded that party insiders will mount some kind of last-ditch effort to deny him the nomination he seems ever closer to securing. One natural focus of such speculation has been the 715 "superdelegates," party mandarins appointed to the Democratic National Convention outside the primary and caucus system. Blocking insurgencies, after all, is what they were put on this earth to do.
After the tumultuous 1968 convention, the Democratic Party adopted a boss-free nominating system in which
all delegates were selected by primaries
and caucuses. But, explains West Virginia University professor Robert DiClerico, co-author of Choosing Our Choices: Debating the Presidential Nominating Process, "In subsequent conventions in '76 and 1980 there were criticisms of the fact that there weren't enough party people." Insurgent victories in 1972 and 1976, along with Ted Kennedy's strong showing in the 1980 primaries, convinced the party leadership that too much openness and democracy wasn't in their best interests, leading to the creation of the superdelegates.
Since their invention, however, they've remained obscure. But the odd dynamic of the 2004 race—featuring an extended campaign season, a compressed primary schedule and Dean's outsider-yet-front-runner status—raises the possibility that the superdelegates will get the chance to exercise their powers. Back on Nov. 1, public-opinion analyst Ruy Teixeira used his weblog to advise Wesley Clark to "work the arithmetic" and remember that, with regard to the superdelegates, "Dean would actually need 61 percent of the delegates awarded by primaries and caucuses to be assured of nomination."
The place to watch for any serious stop-Dean effort is the list of 75 at-large members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), a true roster of movers and shakers. So far the only at-largers to endorse—American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerald McEntee and former Clinton administration official (and Prospect board member) Maria Echaveste—have gone for Dean. But a sudden rush of names like Donna Brazile, Alexis Herman, Harold Ickes and Linda Chavez-Thompson into either the Clark or Dick Gephardt camps will indicate that a serious attempt to stop Dean is under way.
Nevertheless, any such effort will fail unless the anti-Dean can catch fire with the voters. The designers of the re-reformed system were faced with a basic paradox: To make the superdelegates important, they had to make lots of them, and 715 people are simply far too many to fit into a smoke-filled room—either actually or metaphorically. Beyond the 75 at-largers, the vast majority of superdelegates are ordinary politicians. Every Democratic member of Congress is a superdelegate, as are the party's sitting governors, the 425 members of the DNC and a handful of former party leaders.
The Gang of 75 aside, the DNC members are largely state party chairs, vice chairs and sundry elected officials who serve as members of their state party organization. Those DNC members, along with the members of Congress and the governors, will be loath to buck the views of their constituents on an issue as high-profile as a presidential election. As the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato points out, "These are politicians who each have their own needs and interests," and little interest in sailing against the electoral winds.
Indeed, a stampede of superdelegates endorsing Dean seems about as likely as the stop-Dean scenario. Even before receiving Al Gore's endorsement, he actually led—barely—the race for superdelegate backing. Moreover if Dean does wind up winning the nomination, there will be a price to be paid for having opposed him during his hour of need. Savvy insiders may prefer to get on the bus sooner rather than later as a demonstration of loyalty to a new regime that many now regard as inevitable.
Here, too, the trendsetters to watch are the at-largers. If these true insiders start breaking for Dean, that means the party establishment views him as unstoppable and has decided that the time has come to reconcile themselves to his nomination. Alternatively, if they split among several candidates or remain neutral, the pattern that has held so far—mild hostility, but no effective opposition—will continue for somewhat longer. An attempt to form a united opposition around an alternative candidate remains a real possibility, but it would likely reveal the establishment to be a paper tiger. Only real popular support can amass the delegates—super or otherwise—necessary to win the nomination.