Superdelegates Didn't Seem So Super to Democratic Women Early On

The elite group that today forms Hillary Clinton's firewall was initially derided as “a powerful voting bloc of white men.”

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DNC 2012

Delegates hold signs and U.S. flags while listening to President Barack Obama speak during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 6, 2012.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The “super” in superdelegate wasn't meant as a compliment.

Democratic Party dissidents who came up with the term in 1981 were worried that the fix was in. A year earlier, the party's convention had descended into a floor fight. Senator Ted Kennedy tried to peel delegates away from President Jimmy Carter for the party's nomination. Carter won that battle but got trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election.

Party bosses hoping to learn from the defeat came up with a plan: deploy Democratic governors, members of Congress, and other bigwigs as automatic and uncommitted delegates to the conventions, where they'd be able to steer the party away from future self-immolations. Critics warned that creating an elite class of what they called “superdelegates” would subvert the will of Democratic voters any time the establishment felt threatened.

Many of the dissidents were women—a rich irony, given that superdelegates in 2016 are often cited as a firewall guarding Hillary Clinton's path to becoming the party's first female nominee. This election's insurgent Democrat, Bernie Sanders, has complained about how many superdelegates lined up behind Clinton, and how early they did so.

The commission tasked with tweaking the process after 1980 was led by North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt. At the time, Democratic office-holders who wanted to become delegates had to scrap it out, just like everyone else, in elections at the state or local level. Only eight senators and 35 congressmen had made it to the 1980 convention via that route, according to the Washington Post.

Hunt wanted to put more control in the hands of the party's elected officials, by making them automatic delegates free to put their collective weight behind any candidate.

What to call them? Hunt and other establishment leaders used terms such as “uncommitted” or “unpledged” delegates. But other descriptions were tossed around as well.

“I'm opposed to having these super-status, super-delegates come in and pick our nominee,” Barbara Fife, a Democratic state committeewoman from New York, was quoted as saying by the Washington Post in November 1981. (The term was typically hyphenated in print back then.)

“There was a lot of discussion back and forth,” Fife, who would go on to serve as deputy New York City mayor under David Dinkins, recalls. “I wasn't the only person who was uncomfortable with this idea that some people would run” to serve as delegates “and others would just get on.”

Susan Estrich speaks in 2004 at the Pen USA 14th Annual Literary Awards Festival.
Susan Estrich speaks in 2004 at the Pen USA 14th Annual Literary Awards Festival.
Photographer: Lee Celano/WireImage via Getty Images

Another prominent critic was Susan Estrich, who worked for Kennedy and served on the Hunt Commission. A few years earlier she'd become the first female president of the Harvard Law Review, defeating a future judge named Merrick Garland. There was no way she was going to stand by as her party created what she saw as a new “powerful voting bloc of white men.”

It was Estrich who went down in history as having coined the term “superdelegate.”

“It was derogatory,” she said in an interview this week. “It was a warning. It was the argument against empowering a group of white males to have superpower to ignore the will of the people and do what they thought was best.”

On the nomenclature, at least, Estrich prevailed. Even Hunt, who served as North Carolina governor until 2001 and is now retired, uses “superdelegate” in conversation these days, though he said in an interview, “It's a bad term. ‘Automatic delegates’ is a better term, because they aren't ‘super.’”

The superdelegate dispute of 1981-1982 landed on the desk of another female Democrat, New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro, who was Speaker Tip O'Neill's representative on the Hunt Commission.

Since most elected officials were white males, it was going to be a challenge to make them automatic delegates “without alienating our grassroots constituencies,” Ferraro recalled in her 1985 memoir.

The Democratic establishment, determined to give Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, an easier path to the 1984 nomination, wanted 30 percent of convention votes to be cast by the new superdelegates. Party outsiders, including Kennedy supporters, were opposed.

Ferraro crafted a compromise: superdelegates would constitute 14 percent of the total delegate count and include about 60 percent of Democrats in Congress.

When the delegates, super and otherwise, gathered in San Francisco in 1984, they nominated Ferraro herself to the ticket, since Mondale had picked her as his running-mate.

Most members of that first class of superdelegates had backed Mondale from the campaign's outset. Gary Hart, his main challenger, tried and failed to win them over. “My wife and I called every superdelegate,” he told Salon.com in 2015. “I don’t think we got one superdelegate, and that was the difference.”

To this day, there's debate about whether it was the superdelegates who put Mondale over the top. Either way, he went on to lose to Reagan in the general election in a landslide, winning only his home state and the District of Columbia. 

The number of Democratic superdelegates, and their share of the convention vote, increased steadily after 1984—to 772 (18 percent) in 1992 and 852 (19.3 percent) in 2008, according to Kenny J. Whitby's 2014 book, Strategic Decision-Making in Presidential Nominations.

But their role was little noticed until 2008 when, for a time, they appeared to be defying the party's grassroots by favoring Clinton over Barack Obama.

In the end, most went with Obama—but the wavering was enough to prompt a party rethink. Democratic leaders “must address the perception that there are too many unpledged delegates and those delegates could potentially overturn the will of the people,” a party commission wrote in its 2009 report on the primaries.

This year, superdelegates are slated to cast 714 of a total of 4,765 convention votes, or about 15 percent, the lowest since 1984.

The closest thing the Republican Party has to superdelegates are 168 party members guaranteed a vote at the convention, some 7 percent of the total. Unlike the Democrats, though, they're not free agents; in the first ballot, they must vote in line with their state's caucus or primary result.

Fife, who served as a superdelegate in 1984 and 1988, said she's mostly come to accept the practice, “because the delegates vote for a lot of things beside the president—they vote on rules, on the platform—and usually there's not much controversy.”

Hunt may dislike the term but says he's proud of his role in creating superdelegates. “They have been called upon to do what we wanted to do: use their knowledge and their experience regarding how to win and how to govern in helping pick candidates,” he said.

Estrich went on to manage Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign and is now a partner at the law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in Los Angeles, and a professor at University of Southern California. She, too, has mostly made peace with the superdelegate system. She supported Clinton in 2008 and again in this campaign.

“This is the first election in which it's playing out exactly the way it was intended to play out,” Estrich said. “The only irony is that the opposition was led by women, and the beneficiary of the system working the way it's supposed to is likely to be the establishment candidate, who is a woman. That part, I wouldn't have predicted.”

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