Why the Superdelegate Idea Works

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By Jim Hunt
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In presidential election years, Americans see the face of a political party most clearly in the personality, views and character of its presidential candidates. But a national political party is about more than just the president. Its senators and House members pass the nation's laws and budgets. Its governors lead the states. All must work together for progress in America.

I chaired the 1982 Democratic Party Commission on Presidential Nominations that created certain automatic delegates to the Democratic convention -- the "superdelegates." It was a good idea then, and it is still a good idea. The superdelegates will be crucial to Democrats winning the presidency in November and governing successfully for the next four years.

In creating superdelegates, the Democratic Party recognized the expertise that its top holders of public office have gained by running for office themselves. They are experts at winning. They know the issues. They are in a unique position to evaluate presidential candidates. They have a well-honed instinct for how candidates will be received in their own states and districts. In short, they can help the Democratic Party pick a winner.

But the superdelegates' value extends beyond the convention. If they play a role in picking the nominee, they will be more likely to campaign actively for the nominee in the general election.

I vividly remember the presidential election of 1972. George McGovern, a great senator and a war hero, had been nominated at a convention that included few top Democratic elected officials or regular party leaders. The Democratic Party that America saw on television that year and the platform it adopted seemed out of step with mainstream Democratic leaders. We felt the backlash in the elections.

I was a 35-year-old candidate for lieutenant governor that year. As a loyal Democrat, I attended every party rally I could in the fall. But it was right lonesome; I was often the only top statewide candidate there. Leading Democrats were so upset by what had happened in the nominating process and at the convention that they stayed away from party activities in droves. As a result, we got a licking in November. I won my race, but we lost the governorship for the first time in the 20th century. And Jesse Helms was elected that year to the U.S. Senate.

The Democratic Party has done a lot to make itself more democratic. We no longer have winner-take-all primaries and caucuses. We have made a special place for young people, women and minorities in our party organizations. The decision we made 26 years ago to include in the Democratic convention and nominating process our top elected officials and party leaders who get out the vote is consistent with that history.

I don't know how the superdelegates will vote this year. None of us will know until they actually vote in Denver, though I expect the superdelegates will split in a way not too different from the votes in the states and the nation as a whole.

But I do know that the Democratic Party needs these elected officials and party leaders to be involved. They need to help choose our nominee, shape our platform and return home from the convention invested in the nominee's campaign -- on fire to help the Democratic Party win in November.

Yet it's not enough just to win. We have to lead America, and we have to govern successfully. That is another reason our commission created the superdelegates. We saw what happened in Jimmy Carter's administration. President Carter was a good man with the best of intentions. But he came to Washington without a good working relationship with Democratic members of Congress, which played a big part in his administration's problems.

I am proud of both of the candidates who are headed toward our convention, as I was of my original choice, John Edwards. But we Democrats should not kid ourselves. This is going to be a close, tough election. John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, will have broad support. To win the general election, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will need every bit of enthusiasm and hard work they can get from Democrats across the country. Having the confidence and all-out efforts of governors, members of Congress and effective state party leaders may well provide the margin of victory.

Too often, the Democratic Party has been split between its grass-roots activists on one side and its elected officials and party leaders on the other. It's important to remember: We need both wings to fly.

The writer served four terms as governor of North Carolina, from 1977 to 1985 and from 1993 to 2001.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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