Elizabeth Warren, Superdelegate, Gets It Right on Opposing Superdelegates

Elizabeth Warren is one of the hottest stars in politics, in large part because of her blunt honesty and her willingness to directly oppose the predatory financial industry in a way that few other politicians dare to. Hillary Clinton is said to be strongly considering Warren as a potential vice-presidential pick, a move that would make sense on two fronts. First, it would placate many Sanders supporters and reassure them that a potential Clinton administration would not pull any punches with Wall Street. Second, Warren has proven herself to be an effective surrogate attack dog against Donald Trump.

So it should come as no surprise that Warren has once again made news concerning the topic of so-called “superdelegates” in the Democratic nomination process. As a superdelegate herself, Warren says that they shouldn’t exist at all:

Because she is a top Massachusetts elected official and a party leader, Warren is a super-delegate, meaning she isn’t bound to a candidate at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

“I’m a super delegate and I don’t believe in super delegates,” she said. “I don’t think that super delegates ought to sway the election,” Warren said before giving a talk focused on income equality as part of the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s annual state convention.

To be fair, superdelegates have never directly swayed a primary election in the past. But they have the potential to do so, and when included alongside the pledged delegate totals, they can give an establishment-track candidate the perception of greater invincibility and momentum that is warranted. These drawbacks overwhelm the potential upside of being an emergency shutoff valve in case the voters select a dramatically unacceptable candidate.

Consider the case of Donald Trump. Trump is without doubt the most dangerously ignorant and ill-prepared nominee in modern presidential history. He is also a deeply unpopular nominee who is very likely to lose the general election. And yet, if GOP elites were to overturn the will of the voters and undo his victory at the convention, that would be an even worse outcome for the the party. In such a case, the best thing a party can do is learn that its elites clearly don’t understand the desires of their voters, run the best campaign they can in a doomed effort, then come back in four years with a more acceptable nominee who shares and reflects the actual will of the primary electorate. Under no circumstances should party elites overturn the will of their own voters, even if it means giving up the White House for four years as a consequence of the elites’ disconnect with their own base. (And if the elites are that clueless about their own voters, it’s likely they’re just as clueless or more about what constitutes electability among independents and the general public as well.)

There’s an inside argument to be made that superdelegates are useful because they automatically assign convention spots to elected officials and similar party leaders, thereby leaving regular convention spots for dedicated activists. This is actually a good point (though it’s very insider baseball for the benefit of a few hundred people): without the superdelegate system I would likely not have been fortunate enough to be elected as a delegate to the 2012 convention in Charlotte. But the easy answer in this case is simply to make superdelegates pledged to the winner of their state, or to give them a non-voting role at convention.

As for Sanders and Clinton? Sanders should give up on the prospect of overturning the will of the voters by flipping superdelegates–especially after spending so many months railing against their very existence. For better or for worse Clinton will almost certainly have won the nomination on pledged delegates alone, which means she will be the party’s nominee even without superdelegate support. If choosing her turns out to have been a mistake, that’s will be a lesson for the party and the voters to learn, and not a decision for party poobahs to meddle in. The same would be true if Sanders had won a majority of pledged delegates as well.

Sanders would be best served by fighting to scrap the superdelegate system entirely so that in 2020 or 2024 another anti-establishment candidate can have a better shot at victory without an artificial handicap putting them several hundred delegates in the hole before the campaign even starts. Perhaps even Elizabeth Warren herself.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.