2016 Elections

Superdelegates Won't Swipe Nomination

The Democratic Party would risk revolt if it rejected its voters' choice.

Spot the superdelegates.

Photographer: Max Whittaker/Getty Images

With the prospect of an extended contest on the Democratic side, people are talking about superdelegates again.

The "superdelegates" are mainly current Democratic governors, members of Congress and officials of the Democratic National Committee who are automatic delegates by virtue of their positions. Unlike all other convention delegates, who are chosen in primaries and caucuses and pledged to candidates based on proportional allocation, the "supers" can vote for whomever they want at the convention. About 700 of the 4,763 delegates expected in Philadelphia this summer fall into this category.  (We are only talking about Democrats here. The Republicans don't have superdelegates.)

The supers have not been decisive in determining the Democratic nominees, nor even played a significant factor (even if they did allow Walter Mondale to declare victory a bit earlier than he otherwise would have in 1984). 

But they could make a difference. Suppose the delegates chosen by voters in primaries and caucuses are about evenly split between candidates. The superdelegates would be the tiebreaker. Yet it's unlikely they would override a clear winner. If, for example, Bernie Sanders wins 40 states this year and leads the overall delegate count by some 600 delegates, he would almost certainly pick up enough supers to secure the nomination, regardless of what they say now. Party officials and politicians won't want to go against the clear will of Democratic voters in their states. But if the difference between Hillary Clinton and Sanders is very small, then, yes, the supers could tip the balance.

The case against superdelegates is obvious: Giving elites an automatic large share of the delegates appears undemocratic in a party that says it is dedicated to putting the voters front and central.

And it isn't as if the party would lose control if it didn't have the superdelegates. It influences the process long before conventions meet and delegates get involved. If one aim is to encourage Democratic politicians and party officials to attend the convention, other solutions (perhaps a nonvoting delegate role, for example) are possible. 

The case for the supers?

Concerns that superdelegates are undemocratic are overblown. Those of them who are politicians were elected by Democratic voters, just not in the presidential nomination process. As for the party officials, they are indirectly elected by voters, who elect local party committees, which in turn elect representatives to the Democratic National Committee. 

And if we assume the superdelegates would never overrule any clear decision from the regular pledged delegates -- see party scholar David Hopkins -- then they still have the potential to serve a useful role if the regular process doesn't work properly.

For example, they could prevent a contested convention if the primaries and caucuses fall just short of delivering a majority to a single candidate and the party clearly favors one candidate. This is unlikely, but it's possible. Suppose one broadly acceptable candidate winds up with 48 percent of the pledged delegates, two others fall short with 20 percent each, and a factional candidate wins 12 percent of the others. Since a majority is needed, the "winner" wouldn't have enough votes, and the other three candidates might well stay in the race all the way up to the convention vote.

The party would be unable to begin the fall campaign in earnest, and the convention might wind up an ugly mess, if the losing candidates refused to release their delegates. Instead, the supers would be able to put the "winner" over the top well before the convention begins.

Another case where superdelegates could be helpful would be if a factional candidate strongly disliked by the rest of the party nevertheless wins a slim majority of the pledged delegates. Superdelegates allow the party at least the possibility of upending a majoritarian result for one that better suits the views of the entire party. Such a result would not be undemocratic. It would simply be adjusting for weaknesses in the mechanism of democracy, not overturning it.

So, don't panic about superdelegates. If a candidate wins a decisive victory in the primaries and caucuses, the supers aren't going to upend that. If it's a tie, they'll make the choice. And nothing is wrong, or undemocratic, about that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.