Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Superdelegates and free agents

Barack Obama is on a roll right now, but the Democratic race is still incredibly close. Democrats may well be headed toward a brokered convention. Which way will the superdelegates go?

Hillary Clinton is still the “establishment” candidate among Democrats. The superdelegates represent the party establishment, so one might think that they will throw their weight behind her candidacy. On the other hand, the Sunday New York Times suggested that party establishments have lost a lot of their force to move history. Of course, it also matters which candidate ultimately garners more total delegates, which one runs the more effective charm offensive, etc. etc. In the end, they will be personal votes.

With this in mind, maybe we should also be looking at the superdelegates’ demographic profiles. Exit polls suggest (and here) that so far, Senator Obama has attracted young voters, educated voters, and black voters. Senator Clinton has attracted women, working-class voters and latino/as. Senator Obama has also taken the lead among men, including white men. Anectodally, his popularity among the (relatively) young, educated white men I know is really striking: practically everybody seems to be wildly enthusiastic about him.

535 of the Democratic Party’s 794 superdelegates are sitting Democratic members of the Congress, so for this quick and dirty estimate I’ll just look at them. (The rest of the superdelegates may more balanced, at least in terms of gender: Article 3 Section 2 of the party’s Charter sets out who they are.) Here’s a ballpark estimate, based on this and this: the House of Representatives is 68% white male, 11.5% white female, 6.4% black (male and female), and 3.4% latino/a. The Senate is 78% white male, 16% white female, 1% black (male), and 3% latino (male). Even assuming that minority and female candidates are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans, the majority of these superdelegates are still going to be white men.

How we should interpret Obama’s popularity among men, and among white men, is hard to say. It needs to be the subject of a separate blog entry. Both women and blacks can identify any number of potential identity politics-based worries about this phenomenon, but there is another, more optimistic possibility: for the first time, there is no white male candidate. In a contest that is now inevitably discussed through the lens of identity politics, this makes white men something like free agents. (Black women are in a mirror-image situation, though they are much fewer in number among the superdelegates.) Maybe this gives them a degree of perspective. Maybe, it even means that their votes will be harder to call than exit polls suggest.

Posted by Cristie Ford