Evolution of Superdelegates’ Influence in Presidential Primaries

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Evolution of Superdelegates’ Influence in Presidential Primaries


At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week Bernie Sanders supporters have been rallying in an attempt to change the party’s rules on Superdelegates. This blog post outlines how Superdelegates emerged, the rules that govern them, and the arguments for and against their role in selecting the Democrat nominees for President and Vice President.

A quick history of Superdelegates

After a fractious 1968 Democratic Convention when the party elite nominated the pro-Vietnam War candidate, Hubert Humphrey, over anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy – supported by many grassroots members – in 1970 the Democratic Party introduced an open caucus process, giving all members of the party an equal vote on the nominee.

However, over the course of the next three elections the Democratic Party suffered two Presidential landslide losses. First, in 1972, anti-war Senator George McGovern (S.D.) suffered an unprecedented 49-state defeat to Richard Nixon. Then, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan by 10 percent of the popular vote. The Democratic Party used the two failed candidates as scapegoats – arguing that the nominating process of Presidential candidates should be back in the hands of the party leaders.

Superdelegates were installed within the party to act as a guiding hand that ensured candidates be ‘electorally robust.' They were originally intended to represent 30% of delegates at the national convention, however, during the 1982 convention only represented 14% of delegates. From this point in time, the number of Superdelegates have since undergone incremental growth—reaching 20% of total delegates in 2008. However, it should be noted that the percentage decreased to 15% in 2016.


Current Rules behind Superdelegates

The DNC’s 2016 regulations for Superdelegates are contained within Rule 9.A of the Delegate Selection Material document. Superdelegates include:


  • “The Democratic President and the Democratic Vice President of the United States, if applicable; and


  • All Democratic members of the United States House of Representatives and all Democratic members of the United States Senate; and


  • The Democratic Governor, if applicable; and


  • All former Democratic Presidents, all former Democratic Vice Presidents, all former Democratic Leaders of the U.S. Senate, all former Democratic Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives and Democratic Minority Leaders, as applicable, and all former Chairs of the Democratic National Committee.”

Each of these individual Superdelegates represents only themselves when it comes to deciding the nominee. Superdelegates have the same voting power of a single delegate. However, Superdelegates are not required to vote by caucus or primary election results. This selection process makes Superdelegates autonomous over whom they choose to nominate.


Arguments for and against changing the Superdelegate rules

The case for moving away from the current Superdelegate rules has historical context – see the previous section on 1968 Democratic Convention – and contends that the influence of Superdelegates in the nomination process continues to be undemocratic. This argument prioritizes the collective will of the party over the established elite members.

However, the argument for supporting Superdelegates centers on electability and need to make the nomination process pragmatic for the future success of the party. Without Superdelegates, it is argued, the party would be open to hostile takeover that could undermine its core values. Superdelegates function to maintain the status quo and are required to ensure a ‘fair’ fight between candidates.


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