Democratic Superdelegates: Hillary’s Safety Net, Bernie’s Demise

Everything you wanted to know about superdelegates but were afraid to ask.

In a priceless Saturday Night Live sketch this April, Larry David channels Bernie Sanders, bemoaning Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming lead in Democratic superdelegates.

“Who calls themselves that?” said David. “It’s so cocky! They walk around like they’re such big shots! Let me tell you something- I’ve met some of these superdelegates. They’re not so super. Mediocre delegates is more like it!”

Mediocre or not, Democratic superdelegates are deciding which candidate would face Donald Trump in November. And Bernie’s supporters are mad as hell about it.

A brief definition…

“Superdelegates” are elected Democratic officials and party leaders who are automatically seated as delegates at the party’s presidential nominating convention. In 2016 there are about 700 of them, depending upon how many withdraw, die, or resign from office. President Obama is one, as are former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, every Democratic member of Congress and the Senate, governors, state party chairpersons, and executive committee members of the Democratic National Committee, other party VIPs, and even some corporate lobbyists.

Unlike the 4,050 or so bound delegates apportioned according to primary and caucus voting, superdelegates are not bound to any candidate, but can pledge to a candidate at any time, and switch their pledge at any time. In short, these are free agents.

Republicans also have up to 150 delegates who are chosen by their state’s party apparatus (no more than three per state), but these are bound to vote for the winner of their state primary or caucus.

A little history…

Until the 1970’s, presidential nominees were determined primarily by party bosses, including elected officials. Hubert Humphrey won the 1968 nomination without entering a single primary. Sen. George McGovern chaired a commission to reform that process, leading to a substantial increase in competitive primaries, which led to McGovern’s nomination in 1972.

After the electoral debacles of 1972 and 1980, Democratic leaders, acting on the recommendation of the (North Carolina governor Jim) Hunt Commission, restored some of the role elected officials played in the nomination process, awarding 14% of the delegates to party leaders.

The result: a process that dramatically skews toward the insider candidate, one who early on is perceived to be the likely winner. Until 2016, only one nominating outcome was nearly swayed by superdelegates- Walter Mondale’s win over Gary Hart in 1984- as Mondale was severely tested by Hart’s insurgent campaign. As Barack Obama began to pull away from Clinton in 2008, her modest lead in superdelegates began to evaporate.

To advocates of this system, designating party leaders as unbound delegates balances the process with experienced policymakers, who should not be forced into an unseemly campaign for a delegate slot with ordinary Democratic voters in their states.

To critics, the anointing of superdelegates is a return to backroom deals that undermine the democratic efforts of ordinary voters.

Political scholar Elaine Kamarck, in her excellent 2008 history of the nominating process, explained the opposing forces in the 1982 party debate.

“Opposition to this proposal came from supporters of Senator Edward Kennedy (who, at the time was expected to make another run for the presidency) and from organized feminists. Kennedy supporters on the Commission feared that a large number of Senators and Congressmen at the convention could stop him. On the other hand, former Vice President Walter Mondale, feeling certain that a large number of these delegates would favor him and his operatives, therefore, embraced the 30% number.”

Organized feminists, on and off the Commission, however, made a new argument. Speaking on their behalf, Technical Advisory Committee Member Susan Estrich of Massachusetts argued that creating a new category of delegates who were not subject to the fair reflection and candidate right of approval rules would create a new status of delegate which she referred to as “super-delegates.” These delegates, argued Estrich, would be overwhelmingly white and male. Even were they balanced by an equal number of women in the total delegation — there would still be the problem of “equal power.” The “super-delegates” because of their greater flexibility in the choice of a nominee, would have greater power than the female delegates committed to presidential candidates. (“Unintended Consequences,” by Susan Estrich, Memorandum to the Hunt Commission, September 9, 1981.)”

The 2016 campaign…

Just like his television alter-ego Larry David, Bernie Sanders has reason to trash talk the process the party uses to select a nominee. With most of the primary votes in, he was in a close fight with Clinton for pledged delegate votes won during the primaries and caucuses.

But by early June, Clinton’s 548 superdelegate pledges swamped the 46 Sanders had accumulated, giving her an insurmountable overall lead as they neared the convention.

It’s not only candidates who cry foul, finding themselves handicapped by the system. Sally Kuhn, a CNN commentator, railed at the process in February. “Any liberal who has ever been at a protest march for social justice has heard the popular chant: ‘This is what democracy looks like!’ Well, superdelegates are definitely not what democracy looks like. Anything but… In other words, the Democratic Party’s superdelegates exist to preserve the power and influence of the Democratic Party’s elite. Well that makes perfect sense — if you’re, say, the inherently elitist, pro-big business, rich Republican Party. But not if you’re supposed to be the party that protects the interests of regular Americans.”

The anger at “the establishment elite” has roiled both political parties this year. Sanders and Trump have not only defied early predictions about their prospects, they have emasculated the party leaders’ ability to steer, much less control, the process of selecting their nominees.

Ironically, during this cycle Republican leaders would love to have had a superdelegate system like the Democrats. Had Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and RNC heavyweights had five or six hundred party regulars at their disposal, the nomination might well have been tossed to Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or even Ted Cruz- the only Republican who seems more disliked than Donald Trump.

Reforms in the winds?

Bernie Sanders’ near miss in 2016 has his supporters angry and demanding reforms in the way Democrats choose their nominee. Unsurprisingly, Sanders has called for changes to the delegate selection process, and his complaint is echoed by many liberal activists.

Writing in USA Today, veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum makes the case for abolishing the superdelegate system.

“Superdelegates are a latent, undemocratic pathogen in the Democratic Party. They’re superfluous because they have never dared overturn the verdict of the primaries and caucuses. If they did, they would shatter the party and delegitimize the nominee they imposed. Superdelegates are a poison pill that Democrats have never swallowed…It’s time to realize Teddy Roosevelt’s summons at the dawn of presidential primaries: ‘Let the people rule.’”

Yet any proposal to eliminate the preference given to DNC officials and elected politicians will hit a brick wall. The fox is not likely to give in to the chicken’s demands.

Hillary Clinton will be anointed in Philadelphia in July, in part because she corralled the vast majority of the party’s superdelegates. Their role will soon be forgotten as we enter a general election campaign that is likely to be even nastier, more vulgar, and fact-devoid than the primaries.

The focus then will turn to the arcane role of “electors” and the oft-maligned Constitutional basis of the Electoral College. In the battle for the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the presidency, much chicanery is possible.

But don’t get me started on that.

Roy Neel

Roy Neel was Chief of Staff for former Vice President Al Gore, Deputy Chief of Staff for President Clinton, and directed Gore's 2000 transition planning. He is the author of the political thriller "The Electors."