On Superdelegates, the Electoral College, and Realpolitik

Every time a Republican candidate wins the presidency while losing in the popular vote tally, Democrats renew their attacks on the Electoral College. Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 elicited an even greater tantrum than George W. Bush’s win in 2000. The idea that American vote tallies should directly determine who ascends to the White House was then a fringe idea that existed mostly outside the Overton Window of American public discourse. Today it is not only a mainstream position in the Democratic Party, but it is also perhaps the default position of most Democrats.

This cycle, of the 20 Democratic candidates that Politico reported had stated a position on whether the Electoral College should be eliminated, 16 agreed that it should. Of the presidential candidates still in the race, only one has unequivocally stated we should stick to the system outlined in the Constitution: Joe Biden.

In contrast, Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post quotes Pete Buttigieg as saying the Electoral College “has got to go. We need a national popular vote. It would be reassuring from the perspective of believing that we’re a democracy.”

Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders tersely tweeted in July: “Abolish the Electoral College.” Meanwhile, although Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has not stated a clear position on the question, she has said she is “open” to the idea ending the old constitutional way of electing a president. In contrast, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is decided: “Every vote matters—and that’s why I have called for an end to the Electoral College in favor of the national popular vote movement.”

Here, Warren refers to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which should be understood as nothing less than an attempt to rig presidential elections to favor the preferences of urban left majorities in the largest, bluest states.

All states agreeing to the compact promise to allot all of their electoral votes to the candidate with the greatest number of votes nationally. In this scenario, if the GOP candidate won the majority of votes in New Mexico (a state that has enacted the compact), all of New Mexico’s electoral votes would go to the Democratic candidate, assuming that candidate won more votes nationwide.

In theory, once the states that have enacted the compact have a total of 270 electoral votes or more, the popular vote will render the Electoral College moot—without requiring a Constitutional amendment. To date, 15 states with a total of 196 electoral votes have enacted the compact—a vast majority of signees representing states that are coastal, urban, Democratic strongholds.

Given the reality that so many of the 2020 Democratic candidates for president view the Electoral College as a grievous assault on democracy, it is worth noting that as a brokered convention to determine the nominee begins to look more likely, the democratic principles of many of the candidates have begun “evolving” in some telling ways.

To win the Democratic nomination, a candidate must win at least 1,991 delegates over the course of the primaries and caucuses held across the country. Eight candidates remain in the race. Although Sanders looks to be the frontrunner, this is largely because the relatively-sane wing of the party constituency is currently split between at least four of the “moderate” candidates. As long as these candidates stay in the race, the benefit redounds to Sanders.

Even then, it remains uncertain whether Sanders’ edge will be enough to wrap up the nomination prior to the party’s convention. If it is not, the nominee would have to be determined at the convention, which would give the party’s dreaded superdelegates an outsized role in making the choice. The superdelegates played a large role in Hillary’s coronation as the nominee in 2016. Worries that these superdelegates are party insiders with no fealty to the values of the Democratic rank-and-file pervade the 2020 battle.

Wednesday night’s debate in Nevada showed that the campaigns and the insipid commentariat alike (we’re looking at you, Chuck Todd) are keenly aware of the stakes in a brokered convention.

As one of our nation’s most gifted “moderators” and “journalists,” Todd asked the candidates whether the one with the highest delegate total should be granted the nomination even if he (or she) fails to win the needed 1,991 delegates by the end of the primaries. Five of the six candidates on stage—Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Warren—said that in such a scenario, the question should move to a second round of voting at the convention, a move that would throw the decision to the superdelegates.

For those familiar with the candidates’ positions on the Electoral College, this should come as something of a surprise. While Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar (to varying degrees) support the abolition of the college, all three are not in favor of letting raw vote totals (which determine the share of delegates won in a primary) determine who wins the nomination. And although there are differences between superdelegates and electors, the inconsistency is glaring.

In the case of a hypothetical election, these Democrats support using the popular vote total as a metric, presumably because such a metric would favor a hypothetical Democratic nominee. But in the case of an actual election, comprised only of leftist candidates of various stripes, these candidates would subordinate the vote tallies to the whims of a privileged caste of elite party insiders, presumably because such a process would favor an actual campaign—as they hope, their own.

Bloomberg’s position on the Electoral College has not been articulated in ways that are clear enough to say with confidence where he stands. But unhinged as they may be (in totally different ways), credit is due to Sanders and Biden, whose positions (while self-interested) at least remain consistent.

Biden—the party insider and (until a moment ago) frontrunner—affirms the validity of the Electoral College and he affirms the primary rules established by the party at the beginning of the cycle. Sanders—insurgent socialist and critic of the party status quo—calls for the abolition of the Electoral College and has a similar disregard for the nominating procedures in the event that his wing of the party is too small to meet the necessary delegate threshold before the convention.

In contrast, the inconsistency of Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar can’t really be understood as hypocrisy. Instead, it exposes the realpolitik that has infected the Democratic party, where the hallowed end of power for its own sake justifies any means. We saw it with the partial elimination of the filibuster. We saw it with the Russian collusion yarn. We saw it with Kavanaugh. We saw it with the “whistleblower.” We saw it with impeachment.

Sadly, in this case, the positions staked out by the candidates are contradictory, but they are not irrational. They oppose the Electoral College because it represents a barrier to the political prowess of the Democratic Party. And they endorse a similar process in selecting the nominee because it might enhance their own.

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About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

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