It was done so quietly that it would likely have gone unnoticed even without the news cacophony of the Trump White House, but over the weekend the Democratic National Committee took steps that will impact who will win the 2020 nomination. At their quarterly meeting, the Democratic Party’s leaders fulfilled a promise made at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and significantly overhauled how the party will nominate its next presidential candidate. It did so in a manner that should encourage more candidates who believe that they have just what it takes to take out President Trump or his successor on the GOP side to step up to the starting line. The new rules provide a significant advantage to candidates with grassroots support in an increasingly progressive Democratic Party.
In 2016, to bring some semblance of calm to the national convention, representatives of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders agreed to significantly overhaul the nomination rules by creating a “unity commission.” At the heart of the Clinton-Sanders deal was a commitment to reduce the influence of superdelegates in the nomination process. Superdelegates were introduced following the contentious nomination battle of 1980 between President Jimmy Carter and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Carter locked up sufficient delegates early in the nomination cycle to ultimately ensure him the nomination, but he became a weaker and weaker prospective nominee over time. After that election, North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt chaired a commission that created superdelegates — elected officials and other party leaders who are explicitly unbound to any candidate, allowing them, when the party is closely divided, to support the most electable candidate at the time of the convention. “We must also give our convention more flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and, in cases where the voters’ mandate is less than clear, to make a reasoned choice,” the commission’s report stated. In 2016, these unpledged delegates made up about 15 percent of all delegates.
While superdelegates have never deviated from the will of bound delegates since their creation, they often do give an establishment candidate — like Clinton in 2016 — a significant head start in the process, making the path to nomination more complicated for an outsider candidate. The system was particularly aggravating to Sanders’ supporters, many of whom were new to electoral politics and cynical of the voting power of superdelegates, who they considered elites. Thus, the efforts to swing the pendulum back toward a purer voice for rank-and-file activists through reducing the influence of superdelegates.
The compromise that was achieved means that superdelegates will still exist but they will not get to vote on a first ballot at the national convention unless one candidate has rolled up an overwhelming number of delegates. Just over two months from now, candidates will begin announcing their entrance into the race. This change in party rules that elevates chances for a wide-open nomination process will encourage more candidates to get into the field.
Some potential candidates who come from the more establishment branch of the party — with Joe Biden being the most obvious example — would be comparatively disadvantaged by the rule alteration. Which candidates will benefit from the decrease in superdelegate power? Sanders is the most obvious answer because of his role as the anti-Clinton in the 2016 cycle. But others who can capture the progressive energy of the party will also benefit from the rules changes.
One thing is clear: The victory of the Sanders forces on superdelegates means that, even if he never becomes the nominee of a party he continues to refuse to embrace, he has reshaped its future.
To date, I’ve stayed neutral in the truly fascinating race for mayor of Little Rock. One reason I’ve stayed out of the fray has been because I’ve been part of a crew from various organizations — the League of Women Voters of Pulaski County (more men should become members!), the Central Arkansas Library System, KUAR-FM, 89.1, and the local AAUW chapter — who have put together a series of mayor’s race forums at CALS branches around the city that will then be replayed on KUAR. I urge folks to come out to four topical forums (on economic development, crime, infrastructure and education) starting at 6:30 p.m, Monday, Sept. 10, at Southwest Little Rock’s Dee Brown Library and each of the three Mondays to follow. An open-topic event will be held Monday, Oct. 15, at the Ron Robinson Theater.