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Superdelegates: How Democratic Leaders Maintain Control of the Candidate Selection Process

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Though the first caucuses and primaries are still weeks away, Hillary Clinton already has a significant lead in the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination.

According to a survey conducted by the Associated Press in November, in which more than 80 percent of the party’s 712 superdelegates stated which candidate they plan to support at the convention in Philadelphia, 359 said they would be supporting Clinton, compared to just 8 for Bernie Sanders and 2 for Martin O’Malley (210 said they were “uncommitted”).

With more than half of the superdelegates already intending to vote for her, Clinton is beginning the contest with a 15 percent head start in the effort to win the 2,382 delegates needed to have majority support at the July convention — and not a single primary vote has been cast yet.

Clinton’s overwhelming support from superdelegates reflects her standing among the party’s establishment. More than half of the superdelegates consist of the elected membership of the party’s national organization, the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The other superdelegates include Democratic governors, Democratic members of the House and the Senate (voting and non-voting), and other “distinguished party leaders,” including current and former presidents, vice presidents, and DNC chairs.

Superdelegates’ preferences vary from state to state. In Washington, which has 17 superdelegates, the governor and all of the state’s congresspersons have expressed their support for Clinton, but the state members of the DNC have announced their intention to await the state’s caucus results before pledging to support a particular candidate.

More than half of the superdelegates consist of the elected membership of the party's national organization, the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
In Pennsylvania, there is broader support for Clinton. Having contacted 17 of the state’s 21 superdelegates, the AP found that 14 of them supported Clinton, including the chairman of the state Democratic Party. Three superdelegates stated they were uncommitted, including Rep. Brendan Boyle, who cited his sympathy with Sanders’ concern for income inequality and his friendship with O’Malley.

Clinton’s popularity among superdelegates is not coincidental: one reason for enfranchising Democratic “PLEO” (party leaders and elected officials) at nominating conventions in the 1980s was to curb the growing influence of “outsider” candidates and their supporters and to ensure that the eventual nominee had the blessing of the party’s establishment.

As the New York Times summarized the rationale, superdelegates could either “provide a potential nominee, deemed worthy and electable, with a confirming boost” or “check the progress of a potential nominee leading by a narrow margin but not esteemed [emphasis added].”

To properly understand the origin and role of superdelegates, one must go all the way back to the chaotic Democratic National Convention held in Chicago in the summer of 1968.

There, the party leadership secured the nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey despite Humphrey having not competed in any of the 15 Democratic primaries (where anti-war candidates Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy had won a majority of the delegates). Party leaders, including Chicago mayor Richard Daley, were credited with finagling the delegate selection process to ensure that pro-Humphrey delegates outnumbered those in favor of the “peace plank” on the convention floor.

Eager to prevent a repeat of the internal strife and ensuing riots that tarnished the Chicago convention, the party organized several commissions to reform the nominating process.

The McGovern-Fraser Commission issued a provision requiring that delegate selection should be “open,” meaning that delegates would be selected by voters rather than party leaders. While this reform had the intended goal of regulating the caucus system to prevent its manipulation by party bosses, it had the unintended consequence of prompting state parties to adopt primaries instead: by 1972, the number of states where Democratic primaries occurred increased to 23.

Concerned that the trend toward primaries would weaken the power of the party organization, the Democratic Party established the Winograd Commission. Yet after the nomination and election of Jimmy Carter, the commission’s attention turned to other matters. Among its final proposals was a “bound-delegate” rule – Rule 11 (H), which stipulated that delegates were obligated to support the candidate the voters had chosen (in accordance with the outcome of the caucus or primary).

Rule 11 (H) became a point of contention during the 1980 election season, when Democratic candidate Ted Kennedy tried to persuade some delegates to abandon their support for Carter and support him instead. Though Kennedy failed to secure the nomination, he did succeed in provoking a minor emendation of the party’s rules.

The subsequent Hunt Commission sought to undue some of the reforms of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which – like the proportional allocation of delegates and party machine-busting affirmative action quotas – had been proposed to empower “insurgent” candidates who lacked the backing of the party leadership.

In addition to softening the wording of Rule 11 (H) to require that delegates should, “in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them,” the commission also sought to empower Democratic officials, especially Democrats in Congress, who felt unfairly excluded from the nominating process and less inclined to campaign on behalf of the eventual nominee.

The chair of the commission, Governor James Hunt of North Carolina, proposed to “return a measure of decision-making power and discretion to the organized party” by allowing “a substantial number of party leader and elected official delegates to be selected without requiring a prior declaration of preference.” The result was the creation of the “unpledged” superdelegate.

While Hunt framed the reform in terms of inclusiveness, he also declared that the commission’s purpose was to formulate rules “that will help us choose a nominee who can win,” an idea that today is simply expressed – most often by general election-conscious party elites – with the word “electability.”

The commission initially proposed that 30 percent of the convention’s delegates should be unpledged. That figure was eventually whittled down to 14 percent by the time of the 1984 convention, which is approximately what the figure is today.

While some argue that Clinton’s early lead is not insurmountable and that superdelegates may yet break for Sanders, history shows that the establishment has typically been successful at protecting their favorite candidate against outsider candidates, such as Eugene McCarthy (1968), Gary Hart (1984), and Jesse Jackson (1988).

However, early superdelegate support has not always guaranteed a candidate would receive the party’s nomination. In 2008, Clinton had an early lead among superdelegates against Obama but eventually lost that majority support – and the nomination – by the time the delegates convened in August.

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

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443 comments
logo mats
logo mats

So hoping that she is charged with a crime (at least one of many) before election day. This country wouldn't survive that witch for even a week.

sonnyups
sonnyups

if the superdelegates are pushing hillary into the election against the popular vote my vote goes to trump trump trump the hell with this club goverment garbage as we know it

mickrussom
mickrussom

Bernie is a commie lout and I dont like him, but I hope he beat hildebeast the rancid cheating criminal. How can democrats tolerate this superdelegate rubbish?

TheNewNomad
TheNewNomad

@ericbellamy11 Every Superdelegate endorsed HIllary BEFORE primaries? Are THE PEOPLE negated? Is Democracy dead?

RachmanCantrell
RachmanCantrell

If you want to keep Hillary out of office register as a democrat and vote for Bernie in the primary elections.


GregPrice
GregPrice

The entire delegate system is broken and should be abandoned.  In this day an age we don't need a bunch of stand-ins to march off to some central spot just to repeat what we (should) already know.


The people vote at the Primary.  Whoever gets the most votes of the people wins the primary.  It's really that simple


If Hillary wins the nom when Bernie is winning all the voter polls at this point then it will be the biggest theft of the franchise by the party Bosses since Wallace got his VP shot stolen in 44.

doodlebug0
doodlebug0

@GregPrice Hillary won more votes than Obama in the popular vote. He won because he had the super-delegates.  Same thing can and should happen now.

GregPrice
GregPrice

@doodlebug0 @GregPrice Not winning anything with me by citing Obama.  He has been a dismal failure as President.  He ran as an FDR-style reformer and governed like Slick Willie, who also was a corporatist sell-out.


And, for the record, I did vote for him.  Twice.  Because the TEAOP candidate would have been worse.

Dortha Randolph
Dortha Randolph

Hellen will raise taxes on the middle class if she elected, she said that was the only way

doodlebug0
doodlebug0

Bernie has already admitted he'll have to raise taxes on the middle class. Hillary has said she will not.

GregPrice
GregPrice

@doodlebug0 Taxes must be raised on a LOT of people.  We need the money to pay for needed programs.


The idea that you can have clean air/water, a proper military, help for the poor, etc and not pay taxes for it is DONE.  No more national "free lunch".

Robert Polityka
Robert Polityka

The number of the superdelegates should be reduced down to maybe a dozen and have their voting power removed---limit it to people who were elected as President of the United States, Vice President of the United States, House Minority Leader, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Majority Leader or Minority Leader of the U.S. Senate.

doodlebug0
doodlebug0

If that happened in 2008, Hillary would have won the election. She won the popular vote. It was the Super-delegates that gave the presidency to Obama.

RachmanCantrell
RachmanCantrell



I am a long time Democrat but am appalled at how the powers that be have been pushing Hillary as the nominee!  The democratic party establishment is playing a dangerous game in promoting Hillary over Bernie! It is impossible for a democrat to win the presidency without independent voters and Bernie has those in spades! He also has the more progressive democratic voters, new young voters and a good portion of dissatisfied Republican voters. Hillary is hated by the overwhelming majority of independents and Republicans. Faced with a less crazy Republican opponent she would surely lose the presidency. It seems the party establishment is willing to risk giving the presidency to a Republican in order to defend and promote Hillary in the primaries. That may satisfy the powers that be but it is a huge disservice to the American people! 

GregPrice
GregPrice

@RachmanCantrell Ironically, it may be the TEAOP that is more democratic this time around.  No matter what their Bosses do, Trump's support continues strong and growing.  We may be faced with the paradox of a Boss imposed Democrat (Clinton) vs a truly democratically chosen Republican (Trump).

doodlebug0
doodlebug0

@RachmanCantrell Bernie cannot get any of his agenda passed by a repug Congress. He'll be the least effective president in history. You can dream that we can switch the House and Senate but that's not going to happen. Repugs lead in this country and they gerrymander the hell out of the districts. Bernie will be sitting there twirling on his thumb because nothing he wants will even come up for a vote.

GregPrice
GregPrice

@doodlebug0 @RachmanCantrell Neither will Hillary, unless it's so watered down that it might as well been written BY the TEAOP.


When push comes to shove, Hillary will fold like origami against the TEAOP, just like Billy Boy did with the Contract on America.

AlexanderThorne
AlexanderThorne

@doodlebug0 @RachmanCantrell many of those seats are up for re-election.. the people can flip the entire game if Bernie gets in and continues the push for a revolution.. yeah, it can be done.. this may be the last chance, in my lifetime anyhow.  #BernieSanders2016


RachmanCantrell
RachmanCantrell

@AlexanderThorne @doodlebug0 @RachmanCantrell I have Bernie stickers and pins in my shop and I can tell from the reactions that people are finally catching on to Bernie's message.  Right now the sign is low water but soon the tzuname is coming and we all better get to higher ground!


Marcel Deac
Marcel Deac

Hillary Clinton took money from Saudi Arabia Kuwait guitar the King of Morocco Turkey Mexico Columbia she is the biggest crook on American politics right now besides taking money from Wall Street you people don't you see what's going on that's why she is in favor of 40 million illegals in a state vote for Donald Trump and you solve the problem

GregPrice
GregPrice

But then we're left with the problem of Trump and a fully TEAOP government.


The US cannot survive that.

Steve Humphrey
Steve Humphrey

Unless the Democrats succeed in rigging the election - AGAIN - we could actually put a real Conservative who cares about America, in the White House. That would be a wonderful change from the status quo.

GregPrice
GregPrice

"Conservative who cares about America"  what an oxymoron.

Fred Bowman
Fred Bowman

If comes down to election between Clinton and Trump and/or Cruz, many people will "hold their nose" and vote Hillary and pray that Bill will be the actual "Presivdent behind the curtain".

Francis Harris
Francis Harris

Time to do away with the antiquated electoral college and let each and every vote have the same weight.... If the candidate you support is so great then you will not fear this concept..

Michael DePoy
Michael DePoy

Well seems strange because she broken US code 18 section 2071 on the email server problem and part of the law says punishment is not illegible to hold any elected Government office She has screwed all her supporters and campaign contributors and now the Democratic party as well. All for Vanity plus greed.

Penny Hull
Penny Hull

Many people think Obama is not going to leave office. Others think this woman will get in. who knows

Ginny Riker
Ginny Riker

I believe the ideas and policies put forth by Bernie Sanders cannot be ignored any longer. The truth is... human life is more important than profit... always! And there is no way to put the genie back in the bottle. Even if Hilary wins, she will find it rough going if she ignores this truth. All which does not value life above profit will crumble.

RachmanCantrell
RachmanCantrell

If you don't want her to win don't pray, vote for Bernie!


Jim Fritz
Jim Fritz

I recall in1992,when I was a delegate to the Colorado Democratic convention. Jerry Brown had won the primary, but then the super delegates voted and magically what the people wanted disappeared and Bill CLinton got the victory . . . Thats when I bowed out of the political process.

Terry Nelson Height
Terry Nelson Height

Doesn't anybody do any research anymore? It doesn't take much to find how she's been a liar and cheat since the inception of her career in politics. So hoping that she is charged with a crime (at least one of many) before election day. This country wouldn't survive that witch for even a week.

Michael Joseph
Michael Joseph

If the people win the primaries and she somehow wins the nomination it's time to really take on the 1%

Pg Forte
Pg Forte

But would she win? I don't think so. She couldn't even win the nomination last time. The past eight years haven't made her critics any more fond of her. If anything, I'd say less people like her now than did in 2008.

DaveCox1
DaveCox1

This would seem to prove that the Democratic 🤑Leadership does NOT accept democratic selection of their own candidate.

Bonnie L Breckenridge
Bonnie L Breckenridge

So, in other words, once again the big money super pacs get to choose who we get to vote for instead of the majority...I hope we can surprise them and vote Bernie into the nomination in the primaries! As a woman I would love to vote for a woman for president...but as a person I must vote for the person that I think we really need in order to turn this country around....and that is Bernie Sanders.

Rosko Packer
Rosko Packer

Why the hell do they want to nominate someone who so many people don't want, and so many people don't trust, when we have the Democratic Party candidate of a lifetime, who would win the general in a walk. A Hillary nomination brings us a Republican SWEEP in '16. The establishment, and the HC supporters had better wake up to reality. Hillary CANNOT win the general!

Paul Shiras
Paul Shiras

I am opposed to "Superdelegates" I think they are a travesty to free elections. Without them, she loses to Sanders who is more popular and better qualified to lead the nation. (and not owned by Wall Street).

DaveCox1
DaveCox1

You've got to be kidding!

James McDonald
James McDonald

This is how we get presidential candidates we don't want, the fix is in, Democrats. Are a government of the people or not?

Joseph Kieffaber
Joseph Kieffaber

The whole thing is rigged, that is my reaction. It doesn't matter what "we the people" want. What matters is the money that Hillary has already spent buying theses "super delegates"(already a subversion of popular vote). I am sick of it all. How is this any way different in intent from the Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression?

PaPaFrank
PaPaFrank

It's not any different from the Republican gerrymandering, we need to clean house in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Getting rid of the representatives that take money from the 1% and the ones that are going against the American people. When these superdelegates cast their vote against what the people in their states are asking, then it's time to remove them from whatever position they've got. But the ultimate responsibility has to be ours, we have to stay engaged and continue voting in candidates that are going to represent us, the American people. This isn't something that is going to change overnight, the infection is deep and we have to continue irrigating it!!!

Mike Moody
Mike Moody

It's only predetermined if we don't show up and vote for Bernie. She could actually lose the general election because she polarizes voters. That would be REALLY bad for the country.

Ronald Tippitt
Ronald Tippitt

If that truly winds up being the way it comes down and the votes of the citizens in our country don't wind up meaning, then you should expect 1 of 2 things to happen - A. Trump wins the White House which would be a disaster, but Hillary isn't strong enough a candidate to assure a win against Trump. B. Hillary wins and nothing is accomplished over the next 4 years, and then there will be a revolution of another sort. A physical revolution; Assuming that a Hillary nomination won't first inspire the same physical revolution. Either way your scenario would prove to America that we have not voice and the age of Democracy is over. There could be some dangerous reactions to follow.