The Superdelegate Mess
Washington State voters went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. But Democratic superdelegates Ron Sims, Patty Murray, and Maria Cantwell all endorsed Hillary Clinton. If it comes down to it, will they thwart the will of their constituents?
The Democratic superdelegate mess is super confusing. Take Washington State, for example. We have 17 superdelegates, all of them either elected officials or party operatives who get to cast a vote at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this August. They're in a unique position relative to other delegates in that their votes are not bound to the outcome of any state nominating contest, and in this cycle that special status could make them the most important thing in politics. Or not. It's still unclear.
The confusion begins here: More than 30 states, including Washington, have now held caucuses or primaries in order to apportion pledged Democratic convention delegates. Yet two weeks after "Super Tuesday," when most pundits originally thought one candidate would emerge with a significant majority of pledged delegates, the nomination fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama remains essentially tied, with one recent count showing only three pledged delegates separating them. This means the nominating contest could very well end up being decided at the convention by the more special class of delegates, the superdelegates—people like Governor Christine Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims, Seattle representative Jim McDermott, and state Democratic Party chair Dwight Pelz.
Naturally, everyone wants to know: Which way are these superdelegates leaning? It's a simple question with a very convoluted answer that requires a lot of math, a little psychology, and a touch of prescience. This leads to another part of the confusion.
Consider the case of Representative Jay Inslee, a superdelegate whose district covers northern King County, southern Snohomish County, and the Kitsap Peninsula. Inslee is a cochair of Clinton's campaign in Washington State and heads up her national task force on energy and the environment. One would think this would mean Inslee is planning to cast his superdelegate vote for Clinton at the convention. Not so fast. A few days after Washington Democrats overwhelmingly favored Obama at their precinct caucuses, Inslee, through his spokeswoman, told the Bainbridge Island Review that he had decided to wait and see how the campaign unfolds before he decides how to vote in Denver. The immediate armchair psychologist take: Inslee was getting scared of the wrath of his pro-Obama constituency.
But then, a few days later, Inslee's spokeswoman said her statements to the Review had been mischaracterized and that Inslee is, indeed, committed to voting for Clinton at the convention. Inslee himself followed that up with a statement saying of his support for Clinton, "I am well aware that mine is a minority opinion, at least among those who attended the caucuses." He then asked for patience on the part of "those who desire me to immediately switch my position." Armchair psychologist second opinion: Inslee is still a bit scared of the wrath of his pro-Obama constituency, but willing to stay out on a limb for now.
While Inslee isn't "immediately" changing his vote, if he does at some point undergo an Obama conversion—either out of political need or geniune compulsion—he could move to what one might call the John Lewis position. Like Inslee, Lewis, a civil-rights hero and congressman from Georgia, was an early Clinton backer who watched his district vote overwhelmingly for Obama on Super Tuesday. A week and a half after the vote in Georgia, Lewis made national news by saying that his Clinton endorsement doesn't necessarily equal a convention vote for her. Which leads to the third part of the confusion: It's extremely difficult to count superdelegate votes.
They can change (as with Representative David Scott of Georgia who recently switched from Clinton to Obama), become conditional (as with Inslee and Lewis), or cease to exist (as with the February 11 death of California representative Tom Lantos) on a moment's notice. A number of news agencies have tried to tally up how many superdelegates are leaning this way or that, and almost every agency has come up with different numbers. A New York Times survey released on February 18 put the count at 189.5 superdelegates for Clinton, 142.5 for Obama, and 462 still unpledged. (How can there be half a superdelegate? The answer has to do with the complicated rules governing superdelegates from the Democrats Abroad—they each only get half a vote.)
Thoroughly confused yet?
Now let's try to do just the Washington superdelegate tally. On the committed-to-Clinton side, we have Sims, Inslee (sort of), Representative Norm Dicks, Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and former House Speaker Tom Foley.
On the committed-to-Obama side, we have Governor Gregoire, Pam Notter (a Democratic National Committee member from Wenatchee), and Representatives Adam Smith and Brian Baird.
Finally, in the uncommitted column, we have Pelz; state Democratic Party vice chair Eileen Macoll; DNC members Ed Cote, Sharon Mast, and David McDonald; and Representatives Rick Larsen and Jim McDermott.
That is, unless anyone else pulls a John Lewis, or even outright changes his or her mind, in the six months that remain before the convention.
Which seems a distinct possibility. Barack Obama won every single county in Washington State during the Democratic precinct caucuses. That means elected officials such as Cantwell, Murray, and Sims have nowhere to hide, no place in the state they can point to and say, "See, that's the area of Washington that my Clinton endorsement represents."
There is a philosophical and procedural argument raging about whether superdelegates who are elected officials should even care about representing the will of their constituents at the convention, but the political reality is that no smart elected official likes being on the wrong side of his or her core constituency. A core constituency for Cantwell, Murray, and Sims is committed Democrats, who in this state far prefer Obama. (An online petition calling for Murray and Cantwell to change their minds had nearly 8,500 "signatures" as of February 18.)
So far, neither Sims, Murray, nor Cantwell has given any sign that a shift in position is coming. On February 19, Murray's spokesperson, Alex Glass, told me: "She still supports Senator Clinton. She happens to believe that this race is a long way from over, and she's optimistic that voters are going to be making this decision, not superdelegates." The same day, Cantwell's spokesperson, Ciaran Clayton, told me: "Senator Cantwell is still a strong supporter of Senator Clinton's and Cantwell is confident that a decision on the Democratic nominee will be made before August's convention." Translation: They both really hope a decision is made before the convention so they don't have to be the ones making the call.
If Clinton is indeed able to pull ahead of Obama in the next big contests—namely, Ohio and Texas on March 4—don't expect Murray and other Clinton stalwarts to have any political epiphanies. But if the momentum Obama has caught since Super Tuesday allows him to build up a noteworthy pledged delegate lead over Clinton through the next nominating contests, then expect a lot of unpledged superdelegates to begin shifting to Obama, and expect some more Washington superdelegates to start sounding like Representative Brian Baird, who on February 15 endorsed Obama after a long period of fence-sitting. When I asked Baird whether the Obama-favoring results in his southern Washington district just six days earlier had influenced his decision, he replied:
"Yes, of course."