Are Superdelegates Justified?

As the race between Sanders and Clinton began to heat up in the 2016 Democratic nominee race, the party’s superdelegates was a highly contested issue. In the DNC, superdelegates include party officials and elected Democrats, totaling nearly 15% of all delegates [1]. These delegates have the ability to vote for any nominee and are not bound by popular vote. Though superdelegates have yet to swing an election, they do — at least in theory — have the ability to grant the nomination to a candidate that lost by popular vote.

Conversely, superdelegates in the Republican Party have much less power to influence elections. Superdelegates in the RNC number a hundred and fifty total, or three per state. Unlike their Democratic counterparts, these delegates are bound by the the popular vote, and must vote for the nominee their state choses in the first round of voting; afterward, however, they can vote for any nominee they wish [2].

Superdelegates are able to affect each party’s nomination by granting more delegates to a candidate more acceptable to the party’s platform and establishment. This year, superdelegates from both parties attempted to influence the election against populist outsider candidates — the ultimately unsuccessful “Never Trump” coalition on the Republican side attempted to deny Trump the nomination, while their opposites on the Democratic party were proven to be biased against Bernie Sanders [3][4].

These revelations led to serious calls for reform, especially in the Democratic Party, where superdelegates have more influence. Consequently, in July 2016, the DNC Rules Committee voted 158-6 to bring about changes to how superdelegates should function [5], sparking off further debates on the future role of superdelegates.
Aary Sheoran

Superdelegates are key in securing Democratic victories all over the ballot and are part of the party’s defenses against Republicans. The usual attack line on superdelegates, that they override the popular will, is true in that they exist to protect the Democratic base from itself.

The primary reason that the Democratic Party adopted superdelegates was to ensure that the presidential nominee can win the general election [6]. Appealing to moderates is necessary to win the presidency, as the defeats of candidates like Barry Goldwater have proven. It turns out that declaring extremism in the defense of liberty to be no vice, as Goldwater did, tends to repel non-extremists [7]. Abolishing superdelegates risks nominating a candidate susceptible to caricature from Republicans as an ultra-liberal — a modern-day George McGovern [8].

Superdelegates have always granted the nomination to the candidate with the most pledged delegates [9]. This fact often prompts counterargument from the critics: if superdelegates abide by the popular will every time, why have them at all? The whole truth is that superdelegates have abided by the popular will thus far. The conditions under which superdelegates would serve their intended role have not yet manifested. They are as follows:

1. The pledged-delegate winner is unpopular outside of the Democratic Party’s liberal base, whether due to ideological extremism or other reasons. This candidate will be referred to as the “risky candidate.”

2. The risky candidate has a plurality of pledged delegates, but falls short of clinching the nomination on pledged delegates alone.

3. There is a “safer” candidate behind the risky candidate by a reasonably small margin of pledged delegates.

Of course, if the risky candidate clinches the nomination with pledged delegates alone, the nomination should go to them, no questions asked. But if these three conditions are met, then the superdelegates are right to hand the nomination to the safer candidate. Yes, this means that they would be defying the popular will, but this defiance is for the party base’s own good. In presidential elections, voters essentially have a binary choice between the Democratic ticket and the Republican ticket, however unfair some might find it. Superdelegates are an adaptation to the reality of our electoral system: Choosing a risky nominee will make it much more likely that a more objectionable candidate (from a Democratic perspective) will win the Oval Office and the nuclear codes. Until the above three conditions are met, superdelegates lie dormant, harming nobody and nothing.

Admittedly, there is the case of Walter Mondale in 1984, who won a plurality, but not a majority, of pledged delegates [10]. He gained enough superdelegate support to win the nomination on the first ballot, but was crushed in the general election [11]. Mondale’s defeat is not proof that superdelegates fail to serve their purpose because his liberalism was not a leading cause of his electoral demise [12]. Neither Gary Hart nor Jesse Jackson would not have gotten very far against Ronald Reagan either — the economy was recovering swiftly from the recession of 1982 and Reagan’s approval rating neared 60% by Election Day [13]. The second-place candidate, Gary Hart, was behind by 442 pledged delegates, not a reasonably small margin [14].

Superdelegates provide the Democratic Party a means of defending its down-ballot candidates from an unpopular nominee. One need only look at the Republican down-ballot candidates distancing themselves from Trump to understand this threat. These distancing maneuvers can conflict with the need to keep the party unified, creating glitches in a candidate’s messaging. Kelly Ayotte, for instance, has stated that she will vote Trump but will also “stand up” to him [15]. It is tempting to blame the down-ballot candidates for not being craftier in their messaging, but they have no decent options. The conflict of party unity and distancing from the nominee forces the candidate into one of three disadvantageous positions. Embracing the nominee would repel moderates. Distancing would risk losing support from the nominee’s backers. Doing both would end in an Ayotte-like contradiction.

Superdelegates also protect Democratic primaries from sabotage voting from registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Republicans can vote in Democratic primaries in 19 states, and Republican-leaning independents can vote in the Democratic primaries in the majority of states [16]. Republicans and Republican voters could be voting for candidates like the aforementioned “risky” candidate to set up an easy victory for their preferred candidate in the general election. Unless closed primaries become ubiquitous, superdelegates are necessary to ensure that Democrats are choosing the Democratic nominee. Abolishing them would mean the end of an important defense mechanism for Democratic politicians.

Bruno Youn

Of all the controversial issues that arose throughout this year’s Democratic primary elections, one of the most persistent was that of superdelegates. This controversy was certainly justified. In 2016, superdelegates are at best pointless; at worst, they are an anti-democratic relic of a bygone era in party politics, when party bosses and elected officials exercised near-total control over nomination processes.

Primary elections were first introduced in the early 20th century as non-binding contests intended to gauge the popularity of candidates. In decades since, however, both the Republican and Democratic nomination contests have been made more representative of the popular vote, to the point that they rely on it almost entirely. Today, there is an unwritten rule that, for the sake of democratic legitimacy, the winner of the each party’s primaries must become its nominee.

The primary controversy in the role of superdelegates is whether they can or should actually sway the nomination to a candidate who has lost the popular vote. Defenders of superdelegates argue both sides: On one hand, superdelegates are not undemocratic because they can be expected to side with the popular will; on the other hand, superdelegates exist as a safety net in the case that voters choose a truly disastrous nominee.

The 2016 primary elections proved that neither of these arguments justify the existence of superdelegates today. Those who attest to superdelegates’ impotency cite that for superdelegates, “going against the will of pledged delegates has proven to be a near-non-existent practice” [17]. They cite the 2008 Democratic primaries, where superdelegates initially pledged to Hillary Clinton switched their support to Barack Obama after it became clear that he would win the popular vote.

If this is true, and if we should accept the (anti-democratic) role of superdelegates due to their tendency to side with the popular vote, then what is the point of having them at all? This generous argument merely renders these delegates pointless.

The more honest, yet more nefarious argument in favor of superdelegates suggests that their very purpose is to subvert the popular will. Proponents of this idea say that superdelegates exist to guard the parties from a nominee who is unfit, dangerous, or antithetical to core party values [18]. If this sounds familiar, it should. Many “Never Trump” Republicans made this very argument, urging unbound delegates to support candidates other than the popular front runner, or suggesting that the convention rules could be changed to “unbind” all delegates [19].

Both of these attempts failed miserably. Observers noted that the Democratic party, with its far larger number of superdelegates, could have more easily blocked a controversial and anti-establishment nominee. Upon closer examination, however, this picture looks no better.

Consider this: early in the primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders and his supporters often suggested that if Sanders won the primaries, Hillary Clinton would “steal” the nomination using her lead in superdelegates. Had this come into fruition, what would it have looked like? Regardless of what reasoning party officials could have given for overriding the popular vote and nominating Clinton, they would have guaranteed a chaotic and possibly violent convention, low voter turnout and a loss in the general election, and the possibility of a complete fracturing of the party. With these choices, the party would most likely acquiesce to the popular front runner, no matter who that may be. The nomination of Donald Trump shows us as much.

No way of framing the role of superdelegates gives a satisfactory explanation for their existence. Either they will never be the deciding factor in the nomination, and thus serve no purpose, or they are intended to be a deciding factor, and stand to cause disastrous rifts between party institutions and voters.

Thus it is crucial for superdelegates to be removed from the presidential nomination process. At this year’s convention, Democrats chose to bind most superdelegates to their state’s primary or caucus result [20]. At the next convention, they should take this a step further and eliminate superdelegates entirely.
Sam Fraser


























































[10] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.

Image: “Day 36/366…..I Voted” by Denise Cross Photography — Own Work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons.

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