The Democratic party’s “superdelegates” have every right to overturn the popular vote and choose the candidate they believe would be best equipped to defeat John McCain in a general election, according to Howard Dean, chairman of the US Democratic National Committee.
By Lionel Barber, Edward Luce and Andrew Ward in Washington
Mr Dean, who was a presidential candidate in 2004 and is a former governor of Vermont, spoke to the Financial Times just two days after Hillary Clinton put her campaign back in contention with a near double-digit margin of victory over Barack Obama in the Pennsylvania primary.
He said there was nothing in the DNC’s rules that would prevent the party’s unelected superdelegates, who make up about a fifth of the overall delegate tally and who will ultimately pick the winner, from “doing what they want”.
Mr Obama maintains a slim lead in the popular vote with just nine nominating contests left to go concluding on June 3 in Montana and South Dakota.
“If it’s very very close, they [the superdelegates] will do what they want anyway,” said Mr Dean.
“I think the race is going to come down to the perception in the last six or eight races of who the best opponent for McCain will be. I do not think in the long run it will come down to the popular vote or anything else.”
However, he added that it was highly unlikely that the superdelegates – of whom roughly 300 out of 800 remain undecided – would go against whichever candidate was ahead on the popular vote and among pledged delegates in practice. “I think it is very unlikely – I have never seen it happen. In fact it has never happened. But it is possible and they have every right to do it.”
Some commentators have speculated that if the race remains deadlocked after June 3 then a senior figure such as Al Gore, the former
vice-president, or Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, could prevail on one of the candidates to withdraw – with most people focusing on Mrs Clinton.
But Mr Dean, who some have criticised for allegedly mismanaging the drawn-out primary calendar, dismissed that scenario as “total bullshit”.
He said the last such figure who had the authority to do that was John Bailey, a Connecticut Democrat who was chairman of the DNC from 1960 to 1968.
“That person has been a figment of the punditocracy’s imagination for 50 years or more,” he said. “It is great drama to think of such a thing and Washington loves drama. But the truth is that as a former candidate I can promise you only you know when it is time to leave.”
However, Mr Dean said the Democratic party’s chances of regaining the White House would be badly damaged were the race to continue up until the party’s nominating convention in Denver in late August – as many now fear it will. “If we go into the convention divided, we will come out of it divided,” he said. “Somebody is going to lose this race with 49 per cent of the delegates and we can’t win if we’re divided.”
He said it would take at least two months for the supporters of the losing candidate to get over their “grieving” and unite behind the winner, which meant the nomination had to be decided by the end of June. He said most of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates were either in the DNC, the House of Representatives or the Senate and that he, Mrs Pelosi and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, all agreed on the end of June deadline.
“It is not just the extra campaigning time – although that is an issue,” he said. “It is the healing time that is important. I know this because I went through it myself. [Your supporters] go to Iowa and knock on doors and spend their weekends in Pennsylvania. These are real investments and when your candidate doesn’t win it’s incredibly painful. It takes time to get over that.”
Mr Dean appeared confident that the uncommitted superdelegates would know what to do in early June even if he could not specify which yardstick they would use to select the winner. “Politics is a herd mentality,” he said. “There is a gestalt in politics when suddenly people see things in a synchronous way. Politically there will be some feeling at the end of this process that somebody is better than the other person in terms of taking on John McCain.”