Monday, May 21, 2018

Some Notes on the "Democratic Party To-Do List"

It is strange what does and does not pick up steam on social media sometimes.

When late last week I flagged the Astead Herndon article in the New York Times updating the Democratic efforts to finalize rules for the 2020 presidential nomination process, I was doing so more for personal reasons. As I explained in the remainder of the thread, I was more interested in bookmarking the article because there were several notes in it that deserved some attention if not pushback.

The window of attention was much more immediate for FHQ, then, than it was seemingly taken by most. Again, whereas I meant to relatively soon get back to what I see as the flaws of the NYT piece, most took it as FHQ flagging the proposed rule change -- specifically the scaling back of superdelegates -- for a time, far down the road, when the unintended consequences of the change will potentially be felt.

But the thing is, that overall story has not changed -- the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee continues to consider what it will do with respect to the 2020 rules in general and specifically regarding superdelegates -- and the NYT story does not really add much to that. That is not to suggest that the story adds nothing -- it does, which I'll note below -- but it is mainly superfluous to items reported before or in the immediate aftermath of the Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting on May 8-9.

Look, if one thing is a constant around here at FHQ it is that changing the rules changes the game. FHQ's mission has almost always been to not only detail how and in what ways the parties are altering their presidential nomination processes, but the impact those changes do and do not have on how those processes arrive at a conclusion; a presidential nominee.

We remain far removed from the ultimate opportunity to assess whether specific rules changes for 2020 will lay the groundwork for unintended consequences in 2020. After all, we do not yet know what the final rules will look like (and will not until probably August). What remains somewhat clear this far out, however, is that the combination of a backward looking, 2016-tinged fight over superdelegates ahead of a 2020 cycle that looks like it will produce a large field of candidates is potentially mismatched. Reducing the role of superdelegates in the evolving primary season delegate count runs the risk of straining the math of that proportional allocation process. If enough candidates survive a long enough period into primary season, and if those candidates are qualifying for delegates -- hitting 15 percent of the vote statewide and/or at the congressional district level -- then the likelihood of some candidate receiving 50 percent of the delegates plus one to clinch the nomination shrinks. But those are big ifs as of now (and worth a separate post from FHQ at some point). Big because we do not yet know what the final contours of the rules will be and big because it remains early, early enough that there is still a ton of uncertainty involved in how the process will progress for Democrats over the next couple of years.

Now, about that NYT story...

I have a few thoughts that are best dealt with through some annotations alongside the passages in the piece.

#1: The compromise?

Following a lede that reestablishes the lingering divisions in the party after 2016 and a brief description of its symbolic cornerstone -- the superdelegates' role in the Democratic nomination process -- Herndon lays the groundwork of a compromise for 2020. This is not wrong, but it is a timeline truncated enough to be misleading.

The true compromise on superdelegates between the Sanders and Clinton camps, it could be argued, happened back in December when the Unity Reform Commission (URC) finalized its recommendations to the Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC). Those suggestions included a couple of options for scaling back the influence of superdelegates, and in the time since, a third option to more comprehensively reduce the role of superdelegates has been entertained by the RBC.

But what is lacking in the description above is that the compromise is without context. The membership of the URC was divided among Sanders and Clinton appointees. That was clear from the start. The RBC, however, is not. In fact when the new RBC membership was revealed in October 2017 there were complaints about how it was stacked against Sanders, his supporters, and their collective interests:
But Zogby alleges that the rules and bylaws committee chosen by Perez is stacked against the Sanders-aligned reformers.

“Not a single person from the Bernie camp is in the new bylaws groups, but five people from the Clinton side are,” Zogby said. “That’s not a way to get unity.”
There is, then, an inside-outside dynamic involved. It is not that the Sanders faction cannot continue to lobby the RBC to make changes consistent with the URC recommendations (or even more aligned with their various stances), but they are doing so from outside the Rules and Bylaws Committee. The RBC has its own divisions/differences that do not so easily fit in that Clinton-Sanders compromise narrative. The committee is balancing a number of overlapping interests.

#2: An aside on superdelegates

Herndon then jumps into some specifics on the superdelegates proposals. Look, I have been guilty of using this description, too. It is easy on social media in particular. However, it should be said that there is no plan to eliminate (or later in the section on Donna Brazile, "eradicate") superdelegates. This is a semantics issue, but well worth a mention.

There are two things that make superdelegates super. First, they are granted automatic delegate status.  Elected officials, in other words, do not have to run against rank-and-file members of the party -- often their constituents -- for national convention delegate positions. That is no small thing. Having those automatic delegates means there are more delegate slots for the grassroots member of the party.

The second feature that gives superdelegates something super is their unpledged voting status on the presidential nomination vote. Throughout the superdelegates era (1984-present) in the Democratic presidential nomination process, superdelegates have not been tethered to specific candidates based on the voting in primaries and caucuses. Rather, they have been free to choose to align with a particular candidate (or to choose not to) for any reason or combination of reasons of their choosing.

None of the three options that are on the plates of the members of the RBC seek to alter the first superdelegate feature. They will continue to exist -- to have their positions automatically carved out -- in roughly the same numbers in 2020 as 2016. And importantly, the roughly same number of superdelegates would retain the ability to vote on all matters before the national convention in 2020. That would include votes on the platform, votes on the rules, and, say, hypothetical votes by the full convention to unbind any bound delegates on (or allow superdelegates back into) the first ballot vote.1

The only area in which the potential reforms seek to affect superdelegates is on their unpledged voting status on the presidential nomination vote. And even then, the effects extend to just the first ballot and to (in two of the three cases) a fraction of the total number of superdelegates. FHQ tries to use the same "revise the role and reduce the perceived influence of superdelegates" description from the March RBC interim report adopted by the DNC. It can be a mouthful and not particularly well-suited to social media, but does accurately describe what is on the table.

#3: Forcing states

Let's quickly dispense with this one. There is no forcing here. Yes, the URC discussed at length different ways to encourage increased participation in the nomination process. And while some of those meetings included talk of requiring states to make such changes to registration rules or whether unaffiliated voters should participate, the reality is much easier said than done. Much of the language coming out of the current RBC meetings and likely to make it into the ultimate delegate selection rules in 2020 is more about encouraging states to move in these directions where feasible. And this is made clear in the primaries section of the RBC interim report.

#4: Summer meetings

This is a minor point, but Herndon lays out the path ahead for rules changes toward the end of the piece. But in so doing, he makes it sound as if the RBC has a number of public meetings ahead, peppering the summer months. The committee will meeting in conjunction with the June DNC Executive Committee meeting where the group will dig into the 2020 Call for the Convention (which includes some specifics on delegate apportionment and allocation) and seek to finalize the superdelegates and party reform sections of the URC recommendations. That is a long list, and even though the timing may extend beyond the URC/convention-mandated window for RBC consideration of the URC recommendations (end of June), an additional meeting in July may be required to deal with it all.

If past is prelude, then the DNC will adopt the 2020 rules as it has tended to in August.

Now, as FHQ mentioned above, the Herndon's story is not completely devoid of news. Part of that comes from Larry Cohen's comments and the impression they left:

Rather than indicating a sense of continued division, the former head of Our Revolution painted a picture of a leadership team at the DNC that is pushing forward and advocating for the reforms called for by the Unity Reform Commission. FHQ would add that the Rules and Bylaws Committee has had a measured and open consideration of the URC recommendations that has stretched beyond and not simply rehashed the Clinton-Sanders divide. Maintaining a balance on that front has been a thread throughout, to be sure, but there has been a thorough consideration of the practical implications of rules, rules changes, implementation, and unintended consequences.

As always, the proof is in the pudding on these things. Keeping folks "at bay" during rules discussions is one thing. Doing so after the rules are set in stone may be another altogether.

Another part is in Donna Brazile's comments:

There is no official whip count on these things. If there was it would be fluid and very much unofficial. The RBC is going to aim for a set of recommendations that is as close to unanimous as possible. This is the same principle FHQ discussed here with respect to how the RBC would deal with the URC recommendations. Unanimity means consensus, and consensus adds pressure to the next group considering recommendations. Any division is more likely to lead to a maintenance of the status quo.

In other words, tweaks will be made to ensure that the RBC is as close to on the same page as possible.

One could glean a sense of that tweaking process in Brazile's comments laying down a marker on the proposal to completely remove superdelegate voting rights on the first ballot of the presidential nomination at the national convention. Parsimonious though that proposal may be, there is certainly going to be resistance to the idea within the DNC. That is not any breaking news alert. And Brazile is not alone in that resistance among the members of the RBC.

But that idea is out there.

We further know that there are pockets of support and opposition to the other two options; those from the URC. RBC member, Elaine Kamarck, has voiced some opposition to the pooled vote plan. The Congressional Black Caucus has as well. That points the process in the direction of the alternate vote option. That is the messiest, most complicated proposal of the bunch, and those complications are often enough to drive RBC members in the direction of the more elegant option Brazile opposes above.

The bottom line is that the RBC is in the midst of a balancing act on superdelegates that will ultimately produce some recommendations -- on superdelegates and other rules changes -- for full DNC to consider in August. The only thing on superdelegates that is clear at this point is that leaving them untouched is not on the table at this stage.

1 These latter options are not all that likely to happen. There are a number of political reasons neither would. However, such hypothetical votes are absolutely something on which the full convention could vote.

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