The Voters And The Superdelegates

In this Feb. 14, 2008 file photo, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, left and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, right, raise the hands of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., as Clinton makes a campaign stop at the General Motors Assembly Plant in Lordstown, Ohio. With Clinton and Barack Obama in a tight race for delegates who will nominate the party's candidate, the pair were pressuring the state's so-called superdelegates who are not bound by voters' picks.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.

Americans always want to make decisions themselves - and they tell pollsters they want officeholders to pay attention to them. This year the biggest issue for Democrats involves "superdelegates" - the 796 elected and party officials who are automatic delegates to the Democratic convention. Superdelegates number nearly one-fifth of the delegate total, and they can vote for whomever they wish to, and can even change their minds right up to the day in late August when the roll call is taken.

Superdelegates were created more than 20 years ago for many reasons, one of which was to ensure that Democrats who'd actually been elected to party or government offices would be part of the candidate selection process. This year the superdelegates are being pursued by the candidates and their campaigns and - perhaps for the first time - by the voters themselves.

In this year's close nomination fight between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, superdelegates have become visible - and targeted. Actually, they are not just a shifting target, they are a shifting number. Saturday's election of a Democrat in Illinois to take the Congressional seat once held by Republican Dennis Hastert adds not just another Democratic Member to Congress, but a new superdelegate to the Democratic Convention. And there may be two more before August, after special elections are held to replace recently deceased Democrats - Tom Lantos in California and Julia Carson in Indiana.

Americans have made clear their desire to have elected officials listen to them, in poll after poll. Just 18 percent answered in a 1987 Gallup Poll on referenda and elections that the public should "trust our elected officials to make public decisions on all issues." 76 percent said voters should "have a direct say on some issues." A year ago, 86 percent told Gallup that it was important that the next president "pays attention to public opinion when making decisions." Forty-three percent said it was "essential."

One of those decisions on which the public wanted input was the Clinton impeachment debate of 1998. Although Republican Members of the House of Representative voted for the impeachment charges, the Senate voted not to convict. Throughout the process, Americans said that Clinton should not be impeached. A Gallup Poll in September 1998 found 63 percent wanting Congress to "stick closely to American public opinion" when deciding what to do next. Just 34 percent said they should "do what they think best regardless of what the American public thinks."

Americans claim that elected officials don't care what people like themselves think. In a Pew Research Center poll taken in December 2006, 62 percent disagreed when offered the statement "most elected officials care what people like me think." In the same poll, 79 percent agreed that "elected officials in Washington lose touch with the people pretty quickly."

These aren't new feelings; they have shown up in polls for decades. In 1970, 71 percent told the Harris Poll that "public opinion had too little power and influence in Washington."

Sometimes the public even says that paying attention to public opinion means paying attention to polls. 61 percent of Americans told a Gallup Poll in 2005 that the country would be better off if the "leaders of our nation" followed the views expressed in public opinion polls more closely. In 2001, the Kaiser Foundation discovered that 84 percent agreed that "public opinion polling is far from perfect, but it is one of the best means we have for communication what the public is thinking."

So it should be no surprise that the public's instinct now is to reject the decision-making autonomy of the Democratic Party's superdelegates. Back in 1984, even some delegates were concerned. ABC News and the Washington Post found 21 percent of Democratic National Convention delegates wanting to "eliminate" the system altogether, and another 28 percent wanting fewer elected officials to be superdelegates. Forty-five percent were content with the number or wanted more of them.

Democratic voters have been very clear on the subject in this year's exit polls. Last week, although voters in both Texas and Ohio supported Hillary Clinton, six in ten of them said that superdelegates should cast their convention vote "based on the results of the primaries and caucuses." Obama's voters were much more likely to say that than Clinton's voters were, but more of Clinton's voters thought the voting results should decide how superdelegates vote than believed those delegates should use their own opinions about the candidates and their electability. (In Hawaii's February caucuses, petitions were circulated asking the state's superdelegates to vote with the caucuses' majority - which was for Obama.)

Nationally, voters appear a little more conflicted, though their democratic instincts may be affected by question wording - and politics. So far, only two organizations, the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll and CBS News/New York Times, have asked about this subject specifically. In late February, 45 percent of Democratic primary voters nationwide told the LA Times/Bloomberg pollsters that superdelegates should "be free to vote for a candidate as they like," while just about as many (45 percent) said they should " vote for the candidate that won in their state."

At about the same time, CBS News and The New York Times found 52 percent saying superdelegates "should vote for whichever candidate received the most votes in the primaries and caucuses." Twenty-five percent thought "superdelegates should vote for whomever they want," and 20 percent said superdelegates "should vote for the candidate they think has the best chance to win in November." About a third of those wanting superdelegates to follow the election returns said they should follow returns in their state. The rest favored looking at national results (both positions have been espoused at different times by the Obama campaign; and each would yield slightly different results).

As of now, superdelegates will just have to figure out how to make their own decisions!

By Kathy Frankovic