What’s All This About Superdelegates?

My posts have been focusing on the Republican primary race, since that’s where most of the delegate controversy has been residing. But, there are lots of Democrats who are also stroking their chins and going “hmmm” about the strange existence of superdelegates in their nomination process. Party frustration with some former Democratic candidates several years ago resulted in a relatively large chunk of primary delegates being designated as unbound but allowed to commit to a candidate at the time of their state’s election.

It all started in 1972 and 1976 when Democrats nominated George McGovern and Jimmy Carter respectively–both considered weak candidates who were not from the establishment. The Hunt Commission (named for its chairman, then-Governor of North Carolina, Jim Hunt) was created in 1982 to come up with a way to ensure that no out-of-the-mainstream candidate could ever win their party’s nomination. The solution was that a number of unpledged party-loyal delegates from each state would be selected by the state party. They would be claimed by the candidate of their choice in the total of that candidate’s delegates. The expectation has been that these delegates would pledge to the candidate with the strongest ties to the party. That’s how Clinton ended up with half of the New Hampshire delegates even though Sanders swept that state by 22 %. Six superdelegates were pledged to Clinton and none to Sanders.

Of the 4,763 Democratic delegates nation-wide this year, 712, about 15%, are super delegates. So, a third of the 2,382 delegates required for the majority are superdelegates unbound to the will of the voters. Clinton has been getting the lion’s share of these at a rate of about 13 to 1 over Sanders.

So, who are these superdelegates? Guess what, they are the who’s who list of the nation’s Democratic party. They include the President and Vice President, all Democrats in the Congress and Senate, all Democratic governors, chairpersons of all state Democratic parties, and other major Democratic elected officials across the country. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are superdelegates. Bernie Sanders is his own superdelegate! This lineup pretty well guarantees that no Democratic candidate on the fringes of the party will ever survive the campaign to attain a majority of delegates.

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz recently stated publicly, “Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.”

So far, superdelegates have not determined the outcome of an election. Since the inception of the practice, all candidates have won a majority of delegates without counting the superdelegates. However, in 1984, Walter Mondale came close to needing his pledged superdelegates to claim a majority over Gary Hart.

The Republican party does not have superdelegates, but many state Republican nominating processes require a complement of unbound delegates who can vote their heart at the convention without regard to the wishes of the voting public. As noted in a previous post, Pennsylvania sends 54 unbound delegates to the convention and only 17 who are bound to the state’s election results. Most other states have the majority of their delegates pledged to the will of the voters. At the Republican convention, 166 delegates will be defined by the states as unbound. This does not include delegates currently pledged to Rubio and a handful still pledged to other candidates who suspended their campaign. Those delegates pledged to candidates no longer in the race will ultimately be up for grabs.

Please consider clicking “Follow” to make sure you don’t miss any of my weekly posts. I will move away from politics to review the fundamentals of economics in my next few posts.



Are Voters Relevant in the Primary Election?

The answer to the title question is….well, yes and no. Since the Republican primary election is getting all the attention this year because of the potential open (contested) convention, and because this is a rather complex topic, I will limit this post to that contest. At the risk of oversimplifying the primary delegate controversy, I will define the delegates’ obligations to the voters in four general categories of states.

In my opinion, the only Republican voters who have complete determination of whom their delegates vote for are those who vote in proportional allocation states. That is, their state party rules require all of their delegates to vote at least the first convention ballot in proportion to the primary election results. For example, last month, North Carolina voted 40% for Trump, 37% for Cruz, 13% for Kasich, 8% for Rubio, and 1% for other. Their 72 delegates were allocated 29 for Trump, 27 for Cruz, 9 for Kasich, 6 for Rubio, and 1 for other–a simple alignment of delegates according to percentage of votes. This is as fair as it gets in the primary delegate process. But, only 18 states and D.C. allocate proportionally.

The opposite extreme is the winner-take-all allocation. Recently in Ohio, it was Kasich 47%, Trump 36%, Cruz 13%, Rubio 3%, and other 1%. According to Ohio’s rules, Kasich got all of the state’s 66 delegates, although one could argue he only earned 31 (47% of 66). All voters had the opportunity to try to get a majority for their candidate, but only the Kasich voters made any difference–and Kasich didn’t even have a majority of votes. So, did most of Ohio’s voters (53%) and their candidates get cheated? Not really. The majority played the game according to their state party’s rules and just didn’t win anything for their candidate. These states view the presidential primary like any other state race–only one candidate can win. Eight states have chosen winner-take-all rules.

Many states have adopted what is commonly called hybrid rules which is, as the name implies, a combination of proportional and winner-take-all rules. The specifics of these rules vary so widely among states that it would be impossible to break them all down here. An example is Pennsylvania which will go to the polls in a few days to vote for their presidential preference. Then they will vote for 54 delegates by name. These 54 delegates are unbound. Only the remaining 17 delegates (total of 71) will be bound proportionally according to the vote percentages. So, most of the votes will go to delegates the voters have no control over rather than candidates. There are 21 hybrid rules states.

The states where voters have the least say in who they prefer for their nominee are those with rules that all delegates are unbound to any particular candidate. These states are few, but are causing much consternation and accusations of rigging the system this year. A case in point is the Trump allegation that Cruz was “stealing” delegates from him in Colorado. Colorado’s rules call for no primary or caucus. Candidates for delegates compete at the Congressional district party level for a total of 37 unbound delegate positions. The state party committees choose the delegates. Presidential candidates can lobby individual delegates for their future vote at the convention. This is what Cruz did and supposedly obtained the support of all 37 unbound delegates. The other candidates either didn’t understand the rules or chose not to take the time to lobby the delegates. A similar thing happened in the hybrid state of Louisiana where Trump won the plurality of votes, but Cruz swayed some unbound delegates to effectively give him the majority. Only three states send all their delegates (94 total) to the national convention unbound.

So, a good argument could be made that Republican voters in almost two-thirds of the states have limited influence on the ultimate selection of their party’s candidate to run in the general election. Keep in mind that only in the last few decades have voters had any involvement in the process. For two centuries, our nation’s presidential candidates were selected by state party leaders deciding in regional committees who would travel by horse and wagon or later by train to a national convention to decide on a candidate. But, with modern transportation and technology, we should have a more democratic process for electing party candidates.

Lest we conclude, though, that we should just have a nationwide, same-day, popular primary election like the general election, consider that we will need to keep the following advantages of the present process:

  • Narrows the field over an extended time period as unsuccessful candidates drop out (think 17 candidates in a one-time national election)
  • Allows candidates to concentrate on a few states at a time to communicate his or her message
  • Permits a lesser-known, low-budget candidate to gain traction on a more localized level playing field
  • Provides a process that would not require a nationwide runoff election if no candidate has a majority

The best primary process would seem to be for all states to agree on a national standard of all delegates proportionally allocated and bound to the candidates according to the election results of their state. A national convention without a majority candidate could have multiple ballot rounds with the bottom candidate eliminated each round. Only the eliminated candidate’s delegates would then be unbound to vote for one of the remaining candidates until one reached the majority.

This year, however, it is what it is, and no candidate has the right to complain about the rules. The rules were in place when they signed on for this ride. If a candidate doesn’t have a campaign organization that knows the rules, he or she suffers the consequences. If the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl is the result of a trick play that is allowed by the referees, the defense should have been watching better. Touchdown stands!

Also, if a candidate arrives at the convention without a majority, he or she doesn’t deserve the nomination until they have a majority. The majority of voters will have voted for other candidates for a reason, and they deserve to have their states’ delegates carry out their responsibility. It’s not the best of processes, and we probably need to tweak it. But, it is equally cumbersome for each candidate. Each one has a fair shot at becoming the Republican candidate for President of the United States.




Open (Contested) Convention Explained

The result of the Wisconsin primary election almost assures that we will see an open Republican Convention. Hyped by the media for months now as a potential contested or brokered convention, the more appropriate and official name for it is open convention (but you will continue to hear it called contested or brokered). Primary conventions, the last step in selecting each party’s presidential nominee, are either presumptive or open. Most primaries are presumptive, meaning one candidate has earned the majority of required delegates before the convention begins. Less common are open conventions where two or more candidates are still in the running with no one claiming a required majority of delegates (1237 this year for Republicans) before the convention begins. See my last post for a review of the delegate process.

Usually, by convention time, a party’s candidate has won the majority of pledged delegates, and the convention is no more than a time of celebrating the victory of the nominee as all delegates are released to vote unanimously for the winning candidate. However, an open convention is much more dramatic and intriguing as two or more candidates enter the convention without a majority of delegates. In this case the delegates at the convention vote on one of the candidates in a first round, or first ballot, of voting. If still no candidate receives a majority, a second ballot will be voted, and so on. Multiple rounds of convention ballots have been required only 14 times in the last 150 years, the last of which was in 1952 when Democrat Adlai Stevenson eventually won the party’s nomination, but not the presidency. The last president to win his party’s nomination after multiple ballots was Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. The last convention where the party’s nomination was not decided until the first ballot was the Democratic race between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart in 1984. It is interesting to note that rarely has the winner of an open convention gone on to win the general election.

Under current Republican Party rules, here is how an open convention this year in Cleveland would work. Delegates for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich would gather at the convention and cast a first ballot. Also voting would be delegates won by a few other candidates who later suspended their campaigns along with about 150 unpledged, or unbound, delegates. If one of the candidates were close enough to a majority that the unbound delegates voting for him gave him the majority on the first ballot, that candidate would become the nominee, and it would be all over except for the celebration. If no one gets the 1237 delegates on the first ballot, a second round of voting is necessary. Current state-by-state rules releases 57% of the delegates to vote for any candidate they please in the second round.

If, unlikely as it would be, the second ballot votes are still so evenly distributed that no candidate gains a majority, a third round of votes is cast with 81% of the delegates released from their pledge to a particular candidate. Of course, one of the three candidates could be eliminated in any round. The likelihood of a candidate not winning a majority by the end of the second or third ballot is very slim. Remember that the second or third ballot unbound delegates would not all feel obligated to the will of the states they represent. Enough of them would probably be influenced to vote for a commonly agreed upon candidate and give him the majority at that point.

There is a major rules factor that is critical to John Kasich. We are hearing a lot about Rule 40 which was established in 2012 by the Republican Rules Committee which consists of a man and a woman from the Republican party of each state and territory. All delegates ultimately vote on these rules, and they can change right up to the convention. Rule 40 states that any candidate who doesn’t have the majority of delegates from eight states cannot be nominated at the convention. It’s pretty obvious that Kasich will not have these delegates. However, there are rumblings that the Rules Committee may drop that rule which would allow Kasich and even other candidates with perhaps no delegates to be nominated. There are hardly any restrictions on what the rules can be. Many would consider rule changes to favor certain candidates as corruption within the party, but it would be legal and would be Kasich’s and others’ only hope of being nominated. Kasich’s only path to the nomination would be the scuttling of Rule 40. Then a majority of delegates could embrace Kasich or another candidate after multiple rounds of voting failed to give Trump or Cruz the majority. This would be a very long shot.

Some people argue that, if Trump arrives at the convention with close to a majority of delegates and considerably ahead of Cruz, he should receive a near unanimous free-agent delegate vote in the first round and become the nominee. The counter view is that, since the majority of voters voted against Trump, such a presumptive vote would be against the will of that majority. An open convention is not designed to deprive the candidate with the plurality of votes. It is rather designed to fairly ensure the true wishes of the majority of voters. Another consideration is that many of the initially bound voters could actually favor a candidate other than the one to which they are pledged. Once they are released after the first or second ballot, those delegates could cross over to a candidate without the majority, thereby giving that candidate the majority.

The candidates are already trying to woo the unbound delegates and those presently still pledged to candidates who suspended their campaigns. A candidate could possibly still reach a majority of delegates before the convention if enough of these unbound delegates would align with the candidate beforehand. Marco Rubio, however, is still holding on to his delegates just for the remote chance that he would be considered after multiple rounds of ballots.

Keep in mind that almost all delegates are party leaders—local, state, and national—who probably lean toward the Republican establishment and traditional thinking. Once they become unbound, they may migrate toward a more traditional candidate. This could be to Trump’s disadvantage after the first round and could even be bad for Cruz if Rule 40 becomes a non-factor.

Realize that much of what I have written here and what you will hear from the media can be overridden by the highly flexible options of the Rules Committee. If the Committee gets too loose with rule changes, they will suffer voter backlash, so I wouldn’t expect much change. But you never know how desperate they might become.

Yes, it is highly probable that we are going to see the most dramatic primary in the history of politics play out before our eyes this year. After you have voted, there is nothing you can do of any real consequence except buckle up and watch it take its course. The outcome will be pivotal for this great nation.

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Election Delegates Explained (Somewhat)


Choosing the chief executive of the greatest nation in history—the leader of the free world—is surely the most convoluted process in the realm of politics. But, maybe it should be that difficult to select a person to fill this highest position on earth. And, it is we Americans who get the marvelous privilege to participate in it. It all starts with the nominating of candidates who will compete for this virtually incomprehensible responsibility. Let’s try to demystify this process beginning with a historical perspective.

Can you imagine a non-partisan election of a U.S. president? That’s what our forefathers had in mind. The first few presidential elections were not about opposing philosophies. In fact, Hamilton and Madison writing in the Federalist Papers warned against political factions. Yet, by 1796, political caucuses formed to nominate two candidates of opposite persuasions. Throughout the 1800’s, state delegates were chosen by state or district party conventions and sent to national conventions to select a party candidate.

Election of the president by the electoral college system is described in the Constitution and will be the topic of a later post. However, the election of competing candidates for the office was not even envisioned, much less prescribed by the framers of the Constitution. Our presidential primary is the evolving process of the political party system. Through the first half of the 20th century, the national parties established the number of each state’s delegates who would meet at a national party convention to select a candidate. A conglomeration of various state processes was used to select these delegates. Delegates were not pledged to vote for a particular candidate. This system involved a lot of trading, favors, and negotiations. Not until 1968 did most states begin using popular-vote primaries to elect convention delegates pledged in varying degrees to specific candidates. Keep in mind that you have never voted directly for a presidential primary candidate. You have always voted for a group of delegates to go to your party’s national convention and vote for your candidate….or maybe not.

Today, the Republican and Democratic national committees establish their respective number of delegates from each state according to complex formulas. These formulas include such factors as number of state legislators, number of their own party members in state legislatures, etc. Republican delegates for the present election number 2472, while the Democrats choose to have a much higher number of 4765. Most delegates are associated with their Congressional districts. Each election, the party national committees make their own rules for choosing delegates and convention processes. The state party leaders decide on how the delegates will be pledged to candidates. This is where it gets rather complicated. Hardly any two states obligate their delegates alike. Some states are “winner-take-all” where all delegates are pledged to vote for the candidate who wins the majority of popular votes. For instance, in the California Republican primary, a candidate with 51 percent of the votes would get all 172 delegates—the single largest delegate prize in the country. Other states are “proportional” with the delegates pledged to each candidate based on the candidate’s proportion of popular votes. Within the winner-take-all and proportional states rules are numerous sub-rules.

In addition to the Congressional district delegates determined by district population, all states’ Republican parties have 10 at-large delegates (not associated with Congressional districts) and three Party Leader and Elected Officials (PLEO’s) delegates. Some states have bonus Republican delegates based on the states’ recent Republican advancements. Delegates from a few states without primaries number 112 who are the only Republican delegates not pledged to a candidate.

In addition to their Congressional district delegates, all states’ Democratic parties have at-large and PLEO delegates with criteria similar to the Republican party, but in greater numbers and based mostly on state population. Exclusive to the Democratic party is the super delegate category which consists of 714 political leaders not pledged to a particular candidate. Candidates claim these super delegates based on the results of state elections, but the delegates are not obligated in their vote. These super delegates comprise about 15 percent of the party’s total delegate count.

Confused yet? Let’s pause for perspective. After you have voted for a particular candidate in the primary election, if your state is a proportional state, a number of your state’s delegates will align with and vote for your candidate according to the number of other popular votes for that candidate. If yours is a winner-take-all state, your vote will only count if cast for the candidate who won the majority of votes.

But, what happens to your candidate’s delegates if the candidate suspends his or her campaign? Well, generally the candidate can either hang on to the delegates until the national convention, urge them to vote for another candidate, or release them to vote their heart at the convention. Suspending rather than dropping out of a campaign allows the candidate to continue raising funds and continue to claim delegates, even after suspension. Technically, a suspended candidate could reenter the race at the convention. Usually, by the end of the convention, all delegates will be released to make the vote unanimous for the candidate who has the majority of delegates, thereby showing party unity. But….what if the convention begins with no candidate having the majority? This year, the Republican candidates need 1237 delegates for a majority. The Democratic candidates need 2383 delegates to claim a majority. This July, the Republican national convention may very well arrive without a majority candidate. This would result in a contested convention.

In a contested convention, all delegates will vote an official first-round ballot to see whether a candidate gains a majority. What happens beyond that is the subject of my next post. Don’t miss it. You need to know what this would look like. “Follow” my blog so you won’t miss a post.

Of course, there is a lot more to the primary election delegate process than I have presented here, but this is a short tutorial that I hope will help you understand it a little better. Our freedom to vote is one of our most important freedoms and obligations as a citizen. We should know as much about the process as possible.

Click on Media above to find the link to your state’s delegate status.

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