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What Are Superdelegates?

demonstrators against superdelegates
Demonstrators protest outside the Hyatt Hotel where the Democratic National Committee was kicking off its summer meeting in Chicago, 2018. The demonstrators were protesting the use of superdelegates by the Democratic Party, which was one of the issues to be addressed at the meeting. Scott Olson/Getty Images

When the 2008 campaign for president began, it wasn't such a big story that there would be superdelegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. After all, superdelegates have been at every convention since they were created through Democratic National Committee (DNC) rules in 1982 [source: CNN]. In previous contests, superdelegates hadn't enjoyed much of the spotlight. But as the Democratic primaries whittled down the number of competitors for the nomination, a close race emerged between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Even as the end of the 2008 Democratic primary calendar wound down, the two candidates were neck and neck for the Democratic Party's nomination for president of the United States. Scores of primaries and caucuses, including those on Super Tuesday – a day designed to establish a clear front-runner – produced no obvious candidate.

With the delegate counts for Clinton and Obama so close, it was thought that in the 2008 primary season, superdelegates would have a huge impact on which candidate the Democrats nominate for the run for the presidency. In the end, Obama won the nomination thanks in part to superdelegates who defected from Clinton over to his side, though he was ahead in pledged delegates as well [source: Schor and Glaister].

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So, who are these superdelegates? And how do they have so much power?

Delegates won in primaries and caucuses are considered pledged voters, meant to represent the will of the people who voted for a particular candidate. At the national convention, these delegates are expected to vote for the candidate chosen by the thousands of voters they represent. This is not the case with superdelegates.

Superdelegates are simply "unpledged voters." Their vote represents their own choice, rather than the wishes of the voters, and these unpledged delegates can pledge their votes as they see fit.

Superdelegates have to consider how to use their votes carefully. They may:

  • Vote in step with how the voters in the majority of states voted
  • Vote in line with Democratic voters nationwide
  • Vote in favor of the candidate with the most pledged delegates, even if it is just a slim majority.

The Democratic National Committee delegate selection rulebook says that pledged delegates "shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them." In stark contrast, a superdelegate can also choose to vote his or her "conscience." This is one way of saying that a superdelegate may not vote the way the majority of voters do, but on the candidate he or she feels is best.

To win the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for president, a candidate has to rack up 1,991 delegates – half of the 3,979 total delegates plus 1 [source: 270 to Win]. Delegates in 2020 or any other year are won through votes from state primaries or caucuses. Generally, delegates are awarded by percentage in Democratic nominating contests; this is in contrast to some Republican contests, which are winner-take-all. So if one Democratic candidate wins 60 percent of the popular vote in a state that offers 10 delegates, for example, that candidate will win six delegates in that state. This continues state by state, and usually one candidate manages to rack up a clear majority of the delegates before the convention.

In the 2020 Democratic primary, there are about 764 superdelegates, making up around 16 percent of the delegate count for the party [source: Ballotpedia]. These superdelegates are Democratic members of Congress, high-ranking members of the Democratic Party, state governors and former presidents and vice presidents [source: Fang]. (Pledged delegates are selected at the local or state level and are usually ordinary party members who have applied and campaigned for the spots.)

Superdelegates are allowed to switch their pledges from one candidate to another at the national convention. They can also pledge and switch long before the convention. Some say this gives superdelegates undue influence on the course of primary voting behavior, and because they know this, candidates often swoon over superdelegates to curry their favor [source: Heersink]. When they do switch, it's usually to reflect the direction they see the vote going. For instance, 30 superdelegates switched from Clinton to Obama in 2008 after he had gotten a narrow lead in pledged delegates. More might have switched, but Clinton dropped out at this point.

Usually, though, superdelegates don't change their minds, even when candidates plead with them to shift their alliances, as Bernie Sanders did during the 2016 primary season [source: AP News]. That's where things often get messy.

In 2016, many superdelegates came out early in support of Hillary Clinton, a fact that caused Sanders to claim that the Democratic Party powers-that-be were manipulating the system to swap public opinion in Clinton's favor, a task made easier by the inherently confusing and messy delegate/superdelegate system. Although Clinton did win a majority of pledged delegates, Sanders and his supporters thought her early endorsements from so many superdelegates might have swayed primary voters [source: Conway].

In the wake of these conflicts, Sanders and his activists sought several rule changes to the nominating process, which were mostly rejected by the DNC. However, they did get one big change for the 2020 election – superdelegates were no longer allowed to cast their votes during the first ballot at the national convention, unless the outcome was already certain [source: 270 to Win].

So why does the Democratic Party have superdelegates? And does the Republican Party have anything equivalent?

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DNC 2012
Democratic National Committee Chair, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) speaks on stage after calling the convention to order during day one of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, 2012. The DNC nominated Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

During the 1960s, the primary system expanded dramatically, giving local voters much more say in who was nominated for president. But after blowout losses in the general elections of 1972 and 1980, Democratic Party leaders felt they should take back some control as to who won the nomination. The DNC decided to add superdelegates to the nomination process, who were not beholden to voting for whoever won the primary vote but could vote for whoever they thought had the best shot of winning. The Republican Party does have superdelegates as well, but they must vote for the candidate who won the primary in their state, so they are less controversial. Superdelegates in the Republican Party make up 7 percent of its delegates, versus 16 percent of the Democratic Party's delegates [sources: PBS, Heersink].

Superdelegates in the Democratic Party had an almost immediate effect after their creation in 1982. At the 1984 convention – thanks to superdelegate votes – Vice President Walter Mondale won the nomination over rival Sen. Gary Hart, who had won more states than Mondale (although Mondale won more of the popular vote). In the end though, Mondale lost the general election in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, winning just one state and D.C. [source: Pruitt].

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So, it may seem that having superdelegates doesn't make much of a difference to a party's chances of winning the general election. But perhaps it does. "You have superdelegates because ... You don't want bleed-over from the Green Party, the independents and others in deciding who your nominee will be," explained Willie Brown, former mayor of San Francisco and longtime Democrat in 2008, to CNN. Brown cited the ability of undeclared or non-Democrat voters in some states to cast a vote in Democratic primaries or caucuses. The logic follows that if enough of these nonaffiliated voters cast ballots, voters outside the Democratic Party could decide the nominee.

Adding superdelegates to the convention provides a countermeasure against such an event. Since superdelegates are all registered Democrats (and usually elected officials), it's reasonable to assume they wouldn't vote contrary to Democratic Party lines.

But to some, the power superdelegates wield to sway a nomination flies in the face of a democratic process. Why don't the voters get to decide who gets the nomination without interference from party bigwigs? Other observers are concerned over the rules covering the courting of superdelegates. There is little if any protocol that says delegates can't be given outright gifts or even money from a candidate or promised favors if elected [source: NPR].

But as to whether superdelegates can really change an election outcome remains to be seen, particularly with the new DNC rules, which theoretically would give them less power than they had before.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • 270 to Win. "Democratic Superdelegate Rule Changes for 2020." https://www.270towin.com/content/superdelegate-rule-changes-for-the-2020-democratic-nomination (March 5, 2020)
  • Block, Melissa. "Little chance of 'smoke-filled room' in Denver." NPR. Feb. 12, 2008. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18921325 (March 5, 2020)
  • Conway, Michael. "Bernie Sanders' crusade against superdelegates could torpedo his 2020 chances." NBC News. March 3, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/bernie-sanders-crusade-against-superdelegates-could-torpedo-his-2020-chances-ncna1147901 (March 5, 2020)
  • Devine, Tad. "Superdelegates, back off." New York Times. Feb. 10, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/opinion/10devine.html (March 5, 2020)
  • Devine, Tad. "Superdelegates, back off." New York Times. Feb. 10, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/opinion/10devine.html (March 5, 2020) Democratic National Committee. "Delegate Selection Rules." Aug. 25, 2018. https://democrats.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2020-Delegate-Selection-Rules-12.17.18-FINAL.pdf (March 5, 2020)
  • Drum, Kevin. "Superdelegates." Washington Monthly. Feb. 10, 2008. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2008_02/013093.php (March 5, 2020)
  • Fang, Lee. "How Lobbyists and Insiders Could Override Voters to Choose the Democratic Presidential Nominee." The Intercept. June 30, 2019. https://theintercept.com/2019/06/30/superdelegates-2020-democratic-nominee/ (March 5, 2020)
  • Greve, Joan. "What are superdelegates? (And, yes, Republicans have them, too)." PBS. July 12, 2016. https://www.pbs.org/weta/washingtonweek/blog-post/what-are-superdelegates-and-yes-republicans-have-them-too (March 5, 2020)
  • Kuttner, Robert. "A Multi-Ballot Convention: The Dems' Nightmare." The American Prospect. Dec. 9, 2019. https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/multi-ballot-convention-democrats-nightmare/ (March 5, 2020)
  • Pruitt, Sarah. "What are Delegates and Superdelegates?" History. Dec. 20, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/what-is-a-delegate-and-superdelegate (March 5, 2020)
  • Simon, Roger. "Clinton targets pledged delegates." Politico. Feb. 19, 2008. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0208/8583.html (March 5, 2020)
  • Younge, Gary. "It's up to the superdelegates to prove Democrats believe in democracy." The Guardian. Feb. 18, 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/feb/18/hillaryclinton.barackobama (March 5, 2020)
  • Wheaton, Sarah. "Obama takes 3 more superdelegates." The New York Times. May 23, 2008. http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/23/obama-takes-3-more-superdelegates/ (March 5, 2020)
  • "Clinton campaign says superdelegates will pick nominee." Miami Herald. Feb. 13, 2008. http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2008/02/clinton-campaig.html (March 5, 2020)
  • "Democratic rules." All Politics. 1997. http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1996/conventions/chicago/facts/rules/index.shtml (March 5, 2020)
  • "Do superdelegates hold super powers?" NPR. Feb. 6, 2008. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18745567 (March 5, 2020)
  • "Superdelegates loom over Democratic race." CNN. Feb. 19, 2008. http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/02/19/superdelegates/index.html (March 5, 2020)
  • Yen, Hope. "AP FACT CHECK: Sanders' shift on delegates needed to win." Associated Press. March 1, 2020. https://apnews.com/a5f8f2335cf1b617dbb6626845b1c4a8 (March 5, 2020)

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