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Why Superdelegates Exist

Delegates cheer as first lady Michelle Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012.

CREDIT: AP/Jae C. Hong.

They’re supposed to make the Democratic presidential nominating process more democratic, not less.

As the lengthy Democratic nominating system drags on, the party’s process of picking a presidential candidate has come under scrutiny. In particular, the criticism—which has ranged from constructive to nasty—has focused on the party’s superdelegates, current or former party leaders who help pick the nominee but aren’t required to follow the will of primary voters.

While complaints about the “undemocratic” nature of superdelegates have existed for years, the neck-in-neck nature of this year’s race has brought the issue to the forefront of the national conversation. Paul Rockwell of CommonDreams.org noted that “many young voters are discovering that there are two kinds of delegates at Democratic Party Conventions: real delegates (duly elected from the states) and fake delegates, delegates artificially created by the Democratic National Committee.”MoveOn.org has petitioned superdelegates to wait for all voters to express their preferences before making decisions themselves—a move that would allow them to “support the people’s choice.” Within the blogosphere, supporters of Barack Obama attack superdelegates regularly. And Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel has labeled the institution tyrannical and has argued that the system needs to be reformed.

But while many today are arguing that the superdelegate system is undemocratic, it is important to note that the institution was originally created to make the party’s presidential nominating process more democratic, not less. So before Democrats reform or abolish the system outright, it’s important to understand what, exactly, superdelegates are, and why they exist in the first place.

What are superdelegates?

A superdelegate is essentially a member of the Democratic Party who is entitled to cast a vote at the Democratic National Convention for his or her presidential candidate of choice. This year, the Democratic superdelegates include 27 governors, all Democratic members of Congress, and 23 elder statesmen or higher ranking officials. The other half is made up of the members of the Democratic National Committee—former politicians or active players in the party throughout the country. Together, superdelegates will make up 20 percent of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention, or 796 of the total 4,049 delegates. The other 80 percent, of course, are determined by states’ primaries. When added together, the candidate who receives a majority of delegates, or at least 2,025 total, wins the national primary and becomes the party’s nominee.

The primary election system as we know it didn’t exist before 1972; in fact, only 13 states held elections in the 1968 presidential contest. The winning candidate, Hubert H. Humphrey, was chosen mostly by the party machine that year, and his defeat—he lost the popular vote by less than one percent—only discouraged the general Democratic populace. In 1972, Senator George McGovern, who would later become a presidential nominee himself, led a committee that encouraged states to adopt the primary system for the upcoming election. While McGovern was successful in persuading most states to make the switch, he failed miserably in the general election, beating Richard Nixon in only Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts. Many accredited the 1972 Democratic defeat to the new primary system. Thus, in 1980, the Democratic Party established the superdelegate system to give a little bit of power back to active and former members of the party. The superdelegate institution has been in place ever since, for better or worse.

Defense against radical candidates

One major defense of the superdelegate system is protection against more “radical” candidates. For example, a reader at Talking Points Memo has pointed out that superdelegates are a defense against fringe candidates that capture popular imagination but would be disastrous for the party. Even though it is clear that most fringe candidates do not accrue much of the popular vote in the primary process, the superdelegate system is in place on the off chance that this does occur. The superdelegates of the party could prevent a radical candidate from winning the nomination.

The party advocates for the ability to protect itself in the event that the leading Democratic candidate is perceived to be incapable of winning the popular vote. For example, if only the most active—and liberal—members of the Democratic Party voted in the primary one year, they might choose a very liberal candidate. However, if the superdelegates—tried-and-true party stalwarts—felt that this person was too radical to win the popular vote, they would have the ability to elect someone else.

Defense against voter fraud

Of course, there’s a case to be made that the candidate who wins the popular vote within the party deserves the nomination. However, the elimination of superdelegates could bring about an opportunity for voter fraud. A significant number of states, including Alabama, Georgia, and Michigan have open primaries, and even more states feature partially open contents. In these instances, individuals who do not identify as Democrats can cross party lines and vote for Republican (or third party) interests in the confines of Democratic primary. Superdelegates are the most effective tool the Democratic Party has to prevent these malevolent interlopers from tipping the party’s nomination.

Defense against scandal

Over at TPM, a reader also makes the case that superdelegates are a safety valve for the party in the event of a scandal. The first primaries and caucuses are held months before the actual Democratic National Convention. During this period of time, a scandal could break and damage the leading candidate’s standing in the general election. While this has yet to happen, the history of scandalous politicians is hard to ignore. President Bill Clinton was able to ward off the Gennifer Flowers scandal that broke during the 1992 primary season. But, had Clinton been unable to successfully execute a damage control campaign, superdelegates could have altered their decision to ensure the Democrats were nominating a viable general election candidate.

The American political system is based on the concept of ‘checks and balances,’ and the superdelegate system functions as simply another check within the minor confines of the political party apparatus. At its core, it is a safety valve for the protection of the party. Are their inherent biases in the system? Yes, but it also may be a necessary evil.

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