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Democrats Debate Role of Superdelegates
January 4, 2010   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The 2008 presidential campaign, in the minds of many Maine Democrats, was as much about the primary battle between then Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as it was about Obama's victory over Republican John McCain. That's because the party's superdelegate system became a wild card in the closely divided primary.

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Democrats Debate Role of Superdelegates
Originally Aired: 1/4/2010 5:30 PM

Unlike regular committed delegates, superdelegates -- often prominent state party officials -- are not bound by the popular vote of party members. Early on during the primary campaign, there were times when Obama led Clinton by 100 regular delegates while Clinton had the support of a larger number of superdelegates.

Among Clinton's supporters were superdelegates who did not reflect the will of a majority of Maine's Democrats -- and, for a time, that group included Gov. John Baldacci.  "At least to the public in a democracy, there was a disconnect between them and the process, because how could delegates to the national convention be separated from the popular wishes of the public?" Baldacci says.

Now, members of the Democratic National Committee are strongly leaning toward revamping the system that allows superdelegates to vote for whomever they choose. Under the recommendations of a special commission, superdelegates would be required to vote in line with the will of Democratic voters in their state.

Baldacci ultimately threw his support to Obama after Clinton released her delegates. He says he understands the passions that have prompted the proposed changes in the superdelegate system. 

"There was a lot of frustration, anger, and you know, wanting to make changes back to a system where one person, one vote, and the votes collected together would represent the eventual nominee of the party," Baldacci says.  "The adjoiner that goes with that is that we have to get away from caucuses.  So I think what I had said last time was, is that we should change the superdelegate to be reflective of how the people vote within the state, but the vote needs to be a primary vote."

Baldacci says because Maine's Democratic caucuses are held on different days in different communities at different hours, a statewide primary system would simplify the process, and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to participate in the vote.

Baldacci says he's not surprised that the proposed changes from the DNC are coming from members who were squarely in the Obama camp.  "The party and the president of then same party is his party to operate, and wants to be reflective of his symbol, which is open and inclusive."

"I think it's a very positive thing if the president wants to make his own party more democratic," says Christian Potholm, a government professor at Bowdoin College and longtime Republican pollster.  Potholm says he believes the superdelegate system designed by the Democrats subverts the will of the people in a close primary race.

"The whole idea of these superdelegates, that is an anti-democratic -- small-d -- construct, that the Democrats came up with after George McGovern led them down the road to defeat to Nixon," Potholm says. "So I think this is a reform long, long overdue, and it's very ironic that it has taken the Democratic party so long to move back to a more democratic system and away from a very undemocratic system."

Maine Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell also supported Clinton during the primaries. But she says that if she had been a superdelegate, she would have voted with the majority of Maine Democrats. She says that despite their divisions two years ago, most superdelegates did the right thing for the good of the party.

"If you think about it, it worked last time, no matter what," Mitchell says. "Even though the superdelegates were not required to reflect their state, many of them chose to do so after the votes were taken -- they had been supportive of one until their state voted.  Others did not, but democracy can be a little messy.  As long as it's out in the public and people know what you're doing, it's ok."

The superdelegate recommendations will now go before the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee.


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