Darryl Paulson: Democratic leaders say superdelegates help them pick a winner

As we get closer to the national conventions, more and more Democrats are denouncing the superdelegates for undermining the will of the voters.

Not surprisingly, most of the critics are Bernie Sanders supporters who see superdelegates as the primary reason he trails Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic Party nomination for president.

Clinton is backed by 469 of the 714 superdelegates, while Sanders has the backing of only 38 superdelegates, according to the Associated Press. The distribution of superdelegates is not proportional with the votes in the primaries and caucuses. That was never the function of superdelegates. They were created to pick winnable candidates for the general election and not to mirror the popular vote.

In 1972, Democrats and their nominee, George McGovern, won less than 40 percent of the popular vote and the electoral votes of only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Eight years later, incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter won only six states and the District of Columbia against Ronald Reagan.

Those two election debacles caused Democrats to believe they needed to change their nominating process by adding a large pool of party activists and elected officials who would help to ensure the election of winnable candidates.

Isn’t that the function of parties? To win elections.

In 1982, the Hunt Commission issued its report calling for the creation of superdelegates. The commission recommended that 30 percent of convention delegates be superdelegates. That number was reduced to 14 percent when first implemented in 1984. For 2016, there will be 714 superdelegates comprising about 15 percent of all delegates.

Superdelegates are chosen because of the political position they hold. About 20 of the superdelegates are former presidents, vice presidents, congressional leaders and former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairs. All 21 Democratic governors are members, as well as the 48 Democratic senators and 193 Democratic House members. The largest contingent of superdelegates are the 434 members of the DNC from the 50 states and territories.

Superdelegates are not bound to any candidate and may change their support at any time. In 1984, if not for superdelegate support, Walter Mondale would not have had the required vote to win the nomination over Gary Hart.

In 2004, superdelegates were aligned with Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont until Dean’s campaign imploded after his poor showing in Iowa and his “yell.”

In 2008, most superdelegates aligned originally with Hillary Clinton. As Barack Obama started to pull away in the delegate led, many superdelegates switched their support to Obama.

Do superdelegates differ in their policies from other delegates. A 1988 study found little difference in the policy views between superdelegates and regular delegates. The study did find that superdelegates were more likely to support experienced candidates over outsiders.

One of the few rules governing superdelegates is Rule 9A that says that any superdelegate who supports a candidate from another party is disqualified. This happened in 2008 when Joe Lieberman, Democratic senator from Connecticut, supported Republican John McCain and spoke on his behalf at the Republican Convention.

Republicans do not have a similar pool of superdelegates. There are 123 delegates who attend the Republican Convention due to their position as state committeeman, state committeewoman and party chair.

Sanders supporters have denounced the superdelegate system, saying that they do not reflect the will of the voters. That is true, but they were never designed to do so.

Spencer Thayer, a Sanders supporter, developed the “Superdelegate Hit List” that includes the name and addresses of all superdelegates. The logo showed a donkey with its head shot full of arrows. After the list was criticized and some superdelegates received death threats, the site was renamed the “Superdelegate List” and the logo was changed to a donkey with phone cords around its head. Thayer said the site was developed “to harass the superdelegates.”

If Clinton wins the nomination and superdelegates vote over-whelmingly for her, you can expect Sanders supporters to call for the end of superdelegates.

Democrats often reform themselves to death. Republicans would never do that since they seldom reform anything. Republicans are still following the rules their grandparents made.


Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Darryl Paulson

Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.


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