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Why Real Change is Hard (or Impossible)

You’ve heard a lot about party elites, the establishment and so on, but is it true? Does Clinton/Romney actually have a secret advantage by being the pick of the elite party establishment? Can the political machines of each party push their pick over the top? You bet (although it’s not a super-secret, just not well-known), and it’s easier than you think – here’s one way the establishment picks can come out on top, even if voters reject them.

Before we reveal the secret about the political party elites, suppose you’ve been studying the candidates and issues, trying to make an informed selection and thinking your vote counts. Au contraire, mon ami – perhaps you’ve never heard of a superdelegate. If not, it’s because the political parties don’t really want you to know this as it’s one way they use their influence to pick the establishment candidate and minimize the voters intent.

One of the problems confronting the voter is just figuring out what a candidate believes. For the establishment picks of Clinton/Romney, she has a much easier time as her positions are well-known. But Romney is known as a flip-flopper, as the Washington Post notices:

Romney suddenly unveiled a new campaign message, arguing on the stump and in television ads that he was the candidate of “change” who was best able to fix what he called a “broken” Washington.

But the abrupt shift in tone and substance — a huge poster with a “to-do” list of Washington reforms suddenly began appearing at rallies in New Hampshire — reinforced one of the most damaging narratives about Romney’s candidacy: that he has no firm political convictions and will say anything to get elected.

It even prompted his rivals to openly mock him during Saturday’s debate on ABC. Chided by Romney for unfairly characterizing his positions, Huckabee shot back, “Which one?” Romney’s face contorted into a grimace on national television. Later, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said sarcastically: “We disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change.”

When you’re the establishment pick, it’s an anything goes mode. The only thing that matters is winning; consistency and integrity don’t. That’s one reason why Romney is in trouble – nobody can figure out exactly what he believes. He’s pro-choice, and pro-life. He supports planned parenthood, but he doesn’t. He sees … oh nevermind.

Hillary is in a different bind. Her positions are well-known (she’s a leftist), but most people don’t find her “likable”, and really don’t want to relive the Clinton years again – travelgate, filegate, chinagate, stained dress, Lincoln bedroom and so on. Her problem is she’s got too much baggage, and she’s got to get people to forget it. Her win came about by crying on-camera to appear more human. Crying? There’s no crying in politics!

So those are the establishment picks – one person believes the job is hers by fiat, the other will say anything to get elected. But do they have a secret advantage? You bet. Something you may not know about; it’s not really a secret, just not well-known.

Let’s take a look at the primary system – each party has different rules, but for our purposes they’re similar. As anyone knows, it takes a majority of delegates to win nomination, but the error comes from assuming a majority of votes equals a majority of delegates. That isn’t so, and it’s how the party establishment gives a boost to whomever they want, minimizing voters’ choices.

Democrats have 4,049 total delegates, of which 796 (about 20%) are “superdelegates” – the rest (3,253) are won in state primaries. The Republicans have 2,380 total delegates, 463 (also about 20%) are “unpledged” while the rest (1,917) are won in primaries.

Total Needed to Win Superdelegates Available for Primaries
Democrats 4,049 2,025 796 3,253
Republicans 2,380 1,191 463 1,917

Simply doing the math means for Democrats it takes 2,025 to win, while Republicans need 1,191. For simplicity, we’ll look at the Democrat side (the Republicans are similar, just the numbers change). For the Democrat race, a candidate needs 2,025 delegates. To simplify it let’s just have two candidates, and call them “A” and “B”. During the primary, B wins a majority of delegates in state contests (he’s the people’s pick) but A is close (and the choice of the elite establishment). You think the person who gets the most votes wins the nomination? Think again.

Here’s the breakdown (for the moment we’ll ignore the population of each state and assume it’s equal. It won’t really affect the point and it makes analysis easier).

  • Candidate “A” = 40% of vote or 1,301 delegates.
  • Candidate “B” = 60% of vote or 1,952 delegates

B is close, but not quite to, the majority of delegates needed, even though he won by over 20% of the vote. In party primaries, majority of votes doesn’t mean winning; here’s where the party leadership slight-of-hand comes into play. Look at the superdelegates, which number 796 and are not chosen by primary voters. At the convention, they support candidate “A”, with the final results:

  • Candidate “A” = 40% of vote but 2,097 delegates.
  • Candidate “B” = 60% of vote but 1,952 delegates.

Candidate “A” wins the nomination with only 40% of the vote! If he (or she) knows they’re the party elites pick, all they have to do is stay close during the state primaries, and the private delegates swing the convention to their favor even though the majority of citizens want someone else.

Looking at it another way, if a Republican candidate needs 1,191 delegates to win, up to 40% (463/1191) of the delegates required to win could NOT be chosen by voters, but by party elites. This is why being the establishment pick is so important and yields a huge advantage. For this election, it’s Clinton/Romney. They don’t need to win the primaries, just be close and the “Superdelegates” (Democrats) or “unpledged delegates” (Republican) win the day.

So, who are the “Superdelegates” (Democrats) or “unpledged delegates” (Republican), and how are they chosen?

CNN says Democrat “Superdelegates are usually Democratic members of Congress, governors, national committee members or party leaders” while Republican unpledged delegates “automatically become delegates by virtue of their status as either a party chair or a national party committee person”.

Here’s the wiki entry (Wiki’s are not always the best source, and the page may have changed, so beware).

Superdelegates are delegates to a presidential nominating convention in the United States who are not bound by the decisions of party primaries or caucuses. Superdelegates are elected officeholders and party officials.

Superdelegates were first appointed in the 1970s, after control of the nomination process in the Democratic Party effectively moved out of the hands of party officials into the primary and caucus process. The aim was to accord some say in the process to people who had been playing roles in the party before the election year.

As of the 2008 nominating cycle, the Republican Party does not have superdelegates. It does, however, have 463 unpledged delegates, 123 of whom are Republican National Committee members.

While researching this story, we found one newspaper article about it:

Long before the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic candidates began rounding up “superdelegates.” The superdelegates are Democratic governors, members of Congress and members of the Democratic National Committee. Former Democratic presidents, vice presidents and the mayor of Washington, D.C., are also superdelegates. There are 796 in all, more than a third of the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination.

Superdelegates are remnants of the period before control of the nominating process shifted to the voters in primaries and caucuses. They can act as a brake on an insurgent candidate who wins at the polls but is not supported by party leaders. Superdelegates are among the least democratic features of the nominating process — and it’s notable that they are a far bigger factor in the Democratic Party than in the GOP.

Admittedly these numbers are worst-case (or best-case if you’re one of the elites) scenarios, but now you know why the system favors the party elites (Clinton/Romney) so much. Even though Romney isn’t performing well, he has a huge advantage by being the establishment pick as the voters only account for 80% of the winner, while the political machines and elites get the other 20%. To overcome the political machine, you need to win a lot more delegates than the party elites candidate.

Combining this advantage with a huge fundraisng machine (Clinton) or vast personal fortune (Romney) and you’ve got a sizable advantage to overcome. Where’s the campaign reform for that?

And as Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story.




  1. […] shaping up to be a national battle between McCain and Huckabee. However, as our last article on why change is difficult, Romney has a huge advantage – and it’s not just his vast personal fortune, so stay tuned. […]

  2. […] more interesting (as we wrote a while ago) is the battle over superdelegates. We wrote about superdelegates before, but the mainstream press is beginning to ask a simple question: What if Clinton/Romney both […]

  3. bnewt says:

    Uh… you start your example with “During the primary, A wins a majority of delegates in state contests (he’s the people’s pick) but B is close (and the choice of the elite establishment).” But then you go on to describe a situation where A only has 40% of the people’s vote. I’m confused.

  4. OOPS. You are quite right. I edited the sentence in question — it should read:

    ““During the primary, B wins a majority of delegates in state contests (he’s the people’s pick) but A is close (and the choice of the elite establishment).”

    Thus B wins 60% of the vote, but loses the nomination due to superdelgates.

  5. […] More than likely, it will be Democratic Superdelegates who determine who the Democratic nominee is. It’s likely neither will have a majority by convention time, and with hundreds of Superdelegates available, it’s those people (not the voters) who will ultimately choose the Democratic nominee. (For a primer on Superdelegates, see our article Why change is hard). […]

  6. […] site is a battle over superdelegates — one we’ve written about several times. Basically, Hillary can lose the primaries and still be the nominee, due to […]

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