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.



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