What Are Superdelegates?

Presidential debate
The close race between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (shown at a debate in Texas) in the 2008 primaries caused concern over the role superdelegates would play in choosing the party'­s nomination.
Ben Sklar/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, Colo. Superdelegates have been at every convention since they were created through Democratic National Commi­ttee (DNC) rules in 1982 [source: CNN]. In previous contests, superdelegates haven'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 became clear that in the 2008 primary season, superdelegates had a huge impact on which candidate the Democrats nominate for the run for the presidency. Some Democrats publicly pledged to leave the party if superdelegates didn't follow the popular vote. "If the Democratic Party does not nominate the candidate … that the majority (or plurality) of its participants in primaries and caucuses want it to nominate, then I will quit the Democratic Party," wrote Chris Bowers, a member of the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee [source: Open Left].

The term "smoke-filled room" came back into vogue to describe the shady type of politics in which superdelegates could potentially engage [source: Block]. This image reminds us of politics before Progressive Era reforms, where an elite few could choose the candidate they wanted, rather than the one chosen by the people.

What is it about superdelegates that made some people so altogether nervous? Find out on the next page.

Superdelegate Votes

Former Vice President Walter Mondale (shown in July 1984) was boosted to the 1984 Democratic Party nomination by superdelegates.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale (shown in July 1984) was boosted to the 1984 Democratic Party nomination by superdelegates.
Diana Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

To win the 2016 Democratic Party nomination for president, a candidate had to rack up 2,383 delegates. Delegates in 2016 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.

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.

In the 2016 Democratic primary, there were about 712 superdelegates, making up around 15 percent of the delegate count for the party [source: CBS News]. These superdelegates are Democratic members of Congress, high-ranking members of the Democratic Party, state governors and former presidents and vice presidents [source: NPR].

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.

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. "Superdelegates are supposed to vote their conscience and supposed to vote for [the] person they think would make the best candidate and the best president," Howard Wolfson of Hillary Clinton's campaign said in February 2008 [source: Miami Herald]. This is what California Congressman Dennis Cordoza did when he officially switched his pledge from Clinton to Obama the following May, citing her "contentious primary campaign" [source: The New York Times].

Cordoza illustrated another characteristic unique to superdelegates -- they're allowed to switch their pledges from one candidate to another. They can also pledge and switch long before the national convention. Most commonly, a superdelegate rescinds his or her pledge based on his or her constituency. In the 2008 primaries, Georgia Rep. David Scott changed his pledge from Sen. Hillary Clinton to Sen. Barack Obama. Around 80 percent of the Democratic voters in Scott's district voted for Obama, and Scott changed his pledge [source: Ohlemacher].

Superdelegates 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) [source: The New York Times].

Read about why superdelegates may be a good thing -- or could cripple the democratic process -- on the next page.

Superdelegate Pros and Cons

Delegates at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Mass.
Delegates at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Mass.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

What's the point of having superdelegates in the first place? Explained Willie Brown, former mayor of San Francisco, "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" [source: 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 have to sway a nomination flies in the face of a democratic process. "If the superdelegates go against the popular will of the voters, whoever emerges as 'victor' will enter the presidential election shorn of democratic legitimacy and devoid of electoral credibility" warned columnist Gary Younge during the 2008 race [source: Guardian].

Superdelegates have one vote for one person; those pledged delegates that are earned through primaries can represent thousands of individuals. This leads to concerns about the disproportionate influence superdelegates wield. While individual voters' votes are ostensibly earned through a candidate's platform and rhetoric, a superdelegate's vote can, according to DNC rules, technically be bought.

Some political 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. By the time the 2008 primary season began, some already had received money in the form of campaign contributions [source: Boston Globe]. "A candidate can feel free to entice a superdelegate with allusion to past and future favors," added one reporter [source: NPR].

Not all in the Democratic Party are upset about the existence of superdelegates. Democratic strategist Tad Devine suggested that superdelegates are a necessary part of the Democratic nominating process, but not until the convention. Devine lamented the accrual of superdelegates' pledged votes beginning early on in the 2008 primary season. "The superdelegates were never intended to be part of the dash from Iowa to Super Tuesday and beyond," wrote Devine. "If the superdelegates determine the party's nominee before primary and caucus voters have rendered a clear verdict, Democrats risk losing the trust that we are building with voters today" [source: The New York Times].

Even the delegates won in primaries and caucuses aren't actually bound to vote the way they've pledged to [source: Politico]. Despite the concern superdelegates generated during the 2008 Democratic primaries, they ultimately posed no threat at the national convention. They did, however, boost Sen. Barack Obama into the nomination. While Sen. Hillary Clinton continued winning primaries and caucuses to the end of the season, Obama ultimately accrued more superdelegates, which carried him to the Democratic nomination -- before the convention was held.

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  • Devine, Tad. “Superdelegates, back off.” New York Times. February 10, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/opinion/10devine.html
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