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On the DNC Reforms


The most important rule change announced by the DNC Saturday was permitting absentee ballots to be accepted by caucuses, which will both make caucuses much more legitimate democratic elections and encourage more states to abandon them. The optimal level of caucuses is “zero,” but this is a major improvement.

Most of the discussion, however, has focused on the less consequential change, eliminating the first ballot voting rights of superdelegates. Julia Azari has a good piece on the changes. I’m more straightforwardly in favor the changes, which I think are obviously the right thing to do. A few points:

  • I depart from the dominant view of political scientists that the elite selection of candidates is clearly better in theory. People, including party elites, tend to be vastly overconfident about their ability to determine candidate quality, both ex ante and ex post.  I would also suggest that a careful examination of the period when party elites were in control of the process does not suggest some magic ability to select great candidates.
  • But whatever the theory, the rule change codifies the existing practice. Party democracy is an established norm. A candidate selected by superdelegates against the will of primary voters would simply not be legitimate. Even if we assume, for example, that Marco Rubio would be a better candidate than Donald Trump in the general election — which is, in fact, a complicated question — a Rubio installed by party elites after Trump won the primaries almost certainly wouldn’t be.  Superdelegates know this, which is why they didn’t stop Obama in 2008 and would have switched to Sanders had he beaten Clinton in the primaries in 2016.
  • It is true enough that the importance of superdelegates has often been over-exaggerated. It amazes me that a smart person can argue that the Democratic Party is “[m]assively dependent in its nomination process on super-delegates” when of course superdelegates have never materially influenced a presidential nomination, precisely because the theory behind giving them first-ballot votes is anachronistic. But the bad faith arguments implying that superdelegates are the reason Clinton won in 2016 are in themselves instructive — if some Sanders supporters are still upset at the role superdelegates played in 2016, how do you think they would have reacted is they actually did materially affect the outcome? How do you think most Obama supporters would have reacted if superdelegates didn’t switch in 2008? It makes no sense to formally preserve powers superdelegates won’t use because it would obviously be disastrous if they did.
  • And since a lot of “how is that party democracy working out for you?” arguments seem reverse-engineered to Trump, it seems worth pointing out that a Republican superdelegate mechanism would have been as ineffective as every other proposed #NeverTrump measure. Superdelegates wouldn’t solve the problems that 1)Republican elites preferred Trump to Clinton, and for the reasons discussed above deposing Trump would make the election of Clinton on net almost certainly more likely, and 2)Republican elites couldn’t form consensus around an alternative candidate.

If superdelegates have any legitimate role, it’s a brokerage role if the primary process doesn’t produce a clear winner, which this preserves. But stripping superdelegates of their first ballot powers was obviously the right thing to do.

…since it’s coming up in comments, a brief thread explaining why assertions that superdelegates materially affected the 2016 Democratic nomination process are transparently wrong.

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