In the wake of Barack Obama’s string of February primary and caucus victories, many uncommitted Democratic superdelegates were pressured to declare or change their allegiance to Obama. “People are voting for Obama,” the thinking went, “So we should follow the people and commit to Obama. Doing otherwise would flout the will of the people.” Several actually did renege on their commitments.
But not so fast, superdelegates. Clinton popular-vote wins in Texas, Ohio, and Rhode Island this week show that the race for the Democratic presidential nomination may be far from settled.
In the voting so far (based on data from CNN), Clinton narrowly leads the popular vote in states that have held primaries, 50.5% to 49.5%. Clinton and Obama are thus nearly in a dead heat among pledged delegates from those primary states.
Obama has fared better in states that hold caucuses, winning caucus voters by a 2-1 margin. That may be because Democratic caucus-goers tend to be farther to the left than is the body of registered Democrats at large.
Add committed superdelegates to those tallies and Obama now holds a net 96-delegate lead so far, 1,520 to 1,424 delegates. Of the superdelegates, 358 remain uncommitted. And ten states have yet to hold their primaries.
Obama has shown broad voter appeal, to be sure. But Clinton has shown greater voter appeal in seven of the eleven largest states, including California, Texas, New York, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey. Obama won Illinois and Georgia in this tier. (Pennsylvania and North Carolina vote on April 22 and May 6, respectively.) Among these large states so far, Clinton leads in pledged delegates.
So far, it appears that Obama wins the liberal base and Clinton wins the big states – a development that could put uncommitted superdelegates on the horns of a dilemma. It is likely that after primary season neither candidate will have enough committed delegates to win the nomination. The decision as to who the party nominee will be then rests with those 358 uncommitted superdelegates.
If that happens, these superdelegates will face an uncomfortable choice:
a. Vote as the majority of individual Democratic voters have voted countrywide. So far, among primary and caucus voters combined, Clinton leads by more than 46,000 votes. The practical effect of this thinking is simply to multiply the then-existing delegate totals by a constant, with superdelegates adding essentially no additional value to the selection process at all.
b. Follow the local herd and vote as your state delegation votes. Of the 2,507 delegates pledged so far, Obama leads, 52.7% to 47.3%. This approach adds little additional value as well.
c. Notwithstanding pledged delegates, vote for the candidate you think is more likely to win the all-important 270 electoral votes in the fall. There, the advantage falls to Clinton, owing to her greater appeal to voters in the largest, most electoral vote-rich, states.
The stark reality of option (c) is this: unlike the pro-rated (albeit more democratic) apportionment of Democratic convention delegates, electoral votes in the general election are awarded on a winner-take-all basis.
This means superdelegates should consider each candidate’s competitiveness and electability in the fall before naming a party nominee, knowing that the nominee who loses the general election will not be called a great party stalwart. That nominee will be called the loser. As the contests now stand, among the 17 states that will carry 11 or more electoral votes in the fall, Obama has won five, worth 71 electoral votes. But Clinton has won nine, worth 222 electoral votes.
In view of the way this primary season has unfolded, uncommitted superdelegates would be wise to maintain their independence at least into early June, so that all the voters can have their say. Then they can better assess the situation and throw their support behind the candidate they believe is most likely to lead the party to victory in the fall.