At the Democratic national convention in July, 719 people will cast votes for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders to be the presidential nomination who were not selected at any primary or caucus.
These are the so-called superdelegates, but it is not their role at the convention, nor any special powers or abilities, that makes them super. It is their stupendous ability to attract controversy.
There are three ways to become a superdelegate. The first is to be elected to public office as a Democratic governor, senator or congressman. The second is to become one of 438 members of the Democratic National Committee as a loyal party activist or powerbroker. The third and most difficult is to become a superdelegate for life by having served as president, vice-president, DNC chair or Democratic leader in either chamber of the US Congress.
Superdelegates were created in the early 1980s after the Democratic party looked at rewriting their rules after an extended fight over them in the bitter primary between incumbent president Jimmy Carter and Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy. The party had made dramatic changes to its rules after the chaos of 1968, when Hubert Humphrey, who had not won a single primary, was nevertheless nominated at the Chicago convention.
The new rules replaced selection by party bosses in conventions with processes that made picking delegates far more democratic and included language that encouraged women and minorities to be adequately represented.
The problem was that this new system totally cut elected officials and party elders out of the process. As Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic operative and top strategist for 2016 Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders, told the Guardian: “After the 1980 convention when there was so few party leaders and elected officials on the floor of the convention, the party made a decision about looking at its rules and reassessing the primary process.”
This reassessment happened through the Hunt Commission, an internal party panel chaired by North Carolina governor Jim Hunt.
Devine, who played a key role on the commission, said that initially the creation of superdelegates was “limited in scope”. While the commission made “the decision to create a category of delegates who would win that position based not on voter participation but status in the party”, even these delegates were elected.
The House Democratic conference and the Senate Democratic caucus would each meet and elect three-fifths of their members to be delegates to the convention. In addition, the chair and vice-chair of each state Democratic party would become superdelegates as well.
After 1984, the number of superdelegates continued to increase. All Democratic congressmen and senators received an automatic vote at the convention, as did all DNC members. There was a brief attempt to reform this in 1988 when, as a result of convention-eve negotiations between Devine, then representing the campaign of presumptive nominee Michael Dukakis, and Ron Brown, representing liberal insurgent Jesse Jackson, a deal was made to limit the number of the DNC members who could serve as superdelegates.
Instead of every member of that committee, superdelegate status would once again be limited to party chairs and vice-chairs. That was immediately reversed after the election when Brown successfully ran to be DNC chair. As Devine noted, Brown “was a very astute politician and decided to run on platform of restoring status of DNC members as superdelegates”. In an electorate composed entirely of DNC members, this was a very successful message.
Since then, although the number of elected delegates was increased in 2010 to dilute the influence of the superdelegates, there have been no rule changes to limit their role.
Superdelegates now make up about 15% of the available delegates, and they are totally unpledged. They are free to change their mind as often as they want until the convention; they can switch from Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton to Martin O’Malley to Mickey Mouse.
Normally though, they change their mind for one reason: voters support a different candidate. In 2008, a number of African American superdelegates who supported Hillary Clinton early in the primary switched to Barack Obama as it became clear Obama had overwhelming support in the African American community.
Sanders is now desperately trying to woo superdelegates, as very few have backed him to this point. The problem is that they are all longtime Democratic party activists or elected officials and Bernie Sanders only became a Democrat to run for president. He sat in Congress for 25 years as an independent.
With Sanders currently some 250 elected delegates behind Clinton in the race to reach 2,383, he needs to win a lot of superdelegates to become the nominee. Right now, only 31 of the 719 superdelegates support him and 469 support Clinton. Sanders supporters are ferociously lobbying superdelegates in an effort to win them over. One even created a website called Super Delegate Hit List (“hit” was later removed from its title), to make the process easier. Some superdelegates have complained about being harassed as a result.
Dennis Archer, a superdelegate from Michigan and former mayor of Detroit, said lobbying was fine. “I would do the same thing if I were them and I’m not at all offended at them,” he told the Guardian. “One would expect that to occur.” A longtime friend of Clinton’s – he has known her going back over three decades, when they worked together as members of the American Bar Association trying to expand opportunities for female lawyers and lawyers of color respectively – Archer said no lobbying would shake his commitment to voting for her.
But he said he found complaints about the system frivolous, noting that the existence of superdelegates “should not have been a surprise to either” candidate. He added that in the past four years, no one “came forward with a change of recommendations or change of policies” at a DNC meeting.
Looking forward though, Devine said: “If we’re going to change the system, we should wait until all the voting is done and take a look at what’s happened and the best way to be in position to make the most informed judgment.”
He noted: “The charter of Democratic party says the highest authority of the DNC is the convention and the best and most appropriate way through convention process, once voting is completed in June, is to step back, take a look and make some decisions – including, as conventions have done in the past, call for a commission in its wake. The convention itself can give very specific instructions to the commission it would like to review and make changes on.”
Devine noted that the party hadn’t made any major reforms since 1988 and that “it might be time to step back again and take a look at our process. The whole idea behind the reforms was to produce a strong nominee.”
That leaves Sanders having to pull off a series of upset wins in states such as New York – which votes Tuesday – run up the score against Clinton to keep her from winning a majority of the pledged delegates, and then convince those superdelegates that he can be a strong nominee.
Either that, or he just has to discover the superdelegates’ kryptonite.