(CNN)Arcane bylaws, unbound superdelegates, closed primaries, 10-second speeches at state party conventions — Is this really how democracy works?
The vagaries of the American political party primary system are on full, often confounding display this election season as outsider candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, with their bursting rallies and vocal grassroots support, struggle with the fine print of American politics.
Constitutional wonks will be quick to note the U.S. is not a “direct,” but rather a “representative democracy” — meaning there is, be it in electing presidents or passing laws, a legally enshrined buffer between the will of the people and political outcomes.
On the left, they’re called “superdelegates” and they make up an estimated 712 of the 4,763 total votes. Among them, former President Bill Clinton. He gets a lifetime ticket as a “distinguished party leader.” As of Thursday, Hillary Clinton has the promised support of 486 “superdelegates” to Bernie Sanders’ 38. That means two-thirds of her current lead is pegged to autonomous convention delegates.
Asked in February by CNN’s Jake Tapper to explain the need for “superdelegates,” Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was blunt.
“Unpledged delegates exist,” she said, “really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.”
On the Republican side, the number of automatically unpledged voters is 143 — which could be a very big number when you consider Trump is currently on a pace to miss clinching a nominating majority by a little less than that number. The free agents here include the state party chairs and RNC committeemen and committeewomen (one each, from every delegation).
For nearly four decades, the Iowa caucuses have enjoyed their place as the first-in-the-nation nominating contests. Victory there for an upstart candidate can launch a Cinderella run, while a disappointing result for one of the early favorites can set off an untimely death spiral.
So what did the good people of Iowa — with a population roughly one-third of New York City’s — do to deserve such outsized influence?
Well, the political professionals who count on the quadrennial contest for a payday — and the newsfolk who count on the caucuses for some early drama — have done plenty to build up Iowa’s perch.
But it all began with a clever ruse.
Tom Whitney, the state Democratic chair from 1973 to 1977, explained to Iowa Public Television how his colleagues very purposefully drew the eyes and affection of the primary season.
“After the ’74 elections,” he said, “we organized a very, very significant kind of effort to convince first the candidates that they ought to be in Iowa because the national press was going to be here, and then to convince the national press that they should be in Iowa because the candidates were going to be here.”
Smart — just like the founding fathers wrote it up!
And then there’s the Electoral College
Surely the source of the lion’s share of election year agita — at least until now — the Electoral College might be the most obviously dubious feature of the presidential selection process. Rather than count on a simple majority from U.S. voters, candidates are drawn to “battleground states” like, say, Florida. George W. Bush won the state by only few hundred votes in 2000, but he gobbled up every one of its pivotal 25 electoral votes. And with that, despite losing the popular vote, entered the White House.