Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Think that superdelegates will tear the Democratic Party apart? Consider the tale of Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal.
Freudenthal is a Democrat is a state where no presidential nominee of his party has won even 40% of the vote since Lyndon Johnson. That tension is evident whenever he comments on national politics.
In 2004, Freudenthal didn't endorse John Kerry over George Bush until late August and, when he did, declared, "I confess to some nervousness about both of the candidates." In 2005, he said, "I don't care about Howard Dean" -- after Dean had become the national chairman of his party.
True to form, Freudenthal publicly mulled skipping this year's Democratic National Convention, even though it's in Denver, 100 miles from Cheyenne. Here's what he said:
"I frankly would reach beyond just my party, the Democrats, and say that my sincere hope is that I wouldn't have to vote for any of these people, on either side," Freudenthal told The Associated Press in an interview this week. "But, in the end, somebody's going to be elected president."
Doesn't sound like he's angling to be vice president, does he?
A week later he changed his tune. From the Associated Press:
"I heard from a couple of my daughters, as well as my wife, that I was planning to go to the convention," he said. "I just wasn't aware of that at the time."
The thing is, familial pressure or not, Freudenthal probably would have had to involve himself in presidential politics sooner or later. There's a good chance he would have had to attend the convention too.
That's because he's a superdelegate, like all Democratic governors. If the Democratic nomination for president were in doubt, I'm betting he would have been there.
The example of Freudenthal illustrates why the Democratic Party created superdelegates in the first place. Elected officials felt disconnected from the nominating process and felt free to disconnect themselves from the eventual nominee. As superdelegates, the party's top elected officials feel more pressure to publicly support the nominee.
That might be inconvenient for officials like Freudenthal, who, out of political necessity, take care not to be too closely linked to the national party. But it's also beneficial to the party as a whole.
After all, whenever red state Democrats seem ashamed to be Democrats, red state voters get the message that being a Democrat is shameful. In other words, the existence of superdelegates (at least in one way) helps promote party unity and the party's long-term electoral prospects.
That doesn't mean that the power of superdelegates is a good thing or that they won't open a chasm in the Democratic Party -- if Obama comes out ahead from the primaries and caucuses, but Clinton gets the nomination, that's exactly what might happen. But if they do, it will be more than a little ironic.
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