Delegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention
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Delegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver

CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Why Are Some Delegates Super?

In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, superdelegates play an important—and controversial—role

Last month, after Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont resoundingly won the Wisconsin primary, his supporters had reason to be excited. It was the sixth victory in a row for the insurgent Democratic presidential candidate, and it pulled him within roughly 200 pledged delegates of front-runner Hillary Clinton.

The bad news for Sanders, though, was that he still trailed Clinton so badly among what are known as superdelegates—469 to 31—that the race didn’t seem close at all.

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Democratic contenders: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders

CREDIT: Stephen Lam/Reuters (Clinton); David Becker/AP Photo (Sanders)

Superdelegates are party bigwigs—Democratic leaders, legislators, governors, and the like—who can support whichever candidate they want. They’re different from regular “pledged delegates,” who are required (at least, on the first ballot during the party’s nominating convention in July) to vote in accordance with primary and caucus results in their respective states.* Superdelegates have become a major factor in the process for choosing a Democratic nominee.

“They have the potential to play a really significant role when contests are close,” says Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Fordham University in New York.

Why superdelegates? It goes back to the 1972 election. That year, a far-left antiwar candidate, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, won the Democratic nomination by firing up voters who were fed up with the Vietnam War. But McGovern lost the general election to Republican President Richard M. Nixon in one of the worst landslides in American history; McGovern won only 1 of 50 states.

Wake-Up Call

It was a wake-up call for the Democratic Party, which began changing party rules to prevent the nomination of an insurgent candidate who wasn’t moderate enough to appeal to voters in a general election. Superdelegates play a big part in that strategy.

“They were created precisely to avoid the kind of situation the G.O.P. is facing now: the nomination of someone the party leaders think is a liability in the general election,” says Panagopoulos, referring to Donald Trump’s candidacy. 

Republican Party leaders, who are trying to block Trump from winning the nomination, may be wishing this year that they had a process more like the Democrats’. The Republican nominating system includes a handful of delegates who are unbound, like the Democratic superdelegates, but there are so few of them that they have very little influence.

However, not everyone thinks superdelegates are a good idea. 

“This system is unjust,” writes New York Times columnist Charles Blow, “in part because those superdelegates are not prohibited from declaring their loyalty before voting has ended.”

That can sway voters by making it look like a candidate has much more support than he or she really does. Before a single primary vote had been cast this year, for example, 359 superdelegates had already announced their support for Clinton, the former Secretary of State, U.S. senator, and First Lady; just eight had backed Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who’s calling for a “political revolution” to fund many new government programs and reduce the power of Wall Street. The superdelegates helped give Clinton an aura of inevitability right from the start.

 

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CREDIT: Steve Sack/Star Tribune/Creators Syndicate 

 

Yet regardless of who they support early on, superdelegates can change their minds. That’s what happened in 2008, when Clinton was the establishment candidate and had the early support of most superdelegates. But once Barack Obama had enough pledged delegates to win the nomination, many superdelegates switched their allegiance to him. 

“If an insurgent takes hold and appears to be doing well with voters, then he or she can end up doing well with the superdelegates,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Barack Obama is the classic example of that.”

The Sanders campaign has begun wooing superdelegates, hoping he can convince them to flip sides. That won’t be easy.  Clinton halted Sanders’ momentum by winning the New York primary in April. Beyond that, many political experts say party insiders might be reluctant to back a 74-year-old socialist from a small New England state—unless he can make the case that he’s the Democrat most likely to win the White House.

Josh Putnam, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, says superdelegates are there to make sure the party ends up putting its best foot forward. “The party’s objective in all this,” he says, “is to nominate someone who can win in the fall election.”

*Democrats award states’ pledged delegates proportionally, based on the percentage of the vote each candidate wins. (Republicans have a different system, and in some states the primary or caucus winner gets all the delegates.)

nominating a presidential candidate

How the Democrats do it

    • The National Convention

      When the Democrats gather this July in Philadelphia, 4,765 delegates will cast votes to formally nominate the party’s presidential candidate. To win, a candidate needs 2,383 votes. 

    • Pledged Delegates

      Most of the delegates casting votes—4,053 of them—are “pledged delegates” who are each obligated to vote for a specific candidate, based on primary and caucus results in their states or districts.

    • Superdelegates

      There are also 712 superdelegates—party insiders like governors and senators—who can vote however they like and are free to change their minds. Voters have no say in how they vote.

Kate Francis/Brown Bird Design (illustrations)

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