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Democrats Take Wrong Turn on Superdelegates

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The Democrats have taken steps to reduce the influence in 2020 of the so-called superdelegates. Unfortunately, they’re doing it wrong.

Most delegates at the Democrats’ convention are allocated to candidates based on the results of caucuses and primaries. Superdelegates are automatic delegates, entitled to that position by virtue of their status as either elected officials (members of of Congress or governors) or members of the Democratic National Committee. They are free to support any candidate they want. In this cycle, most of them committed to Hillary Clinton, and many announced that decision before the voters first got involved in the process.

Josh Putnam at FHQ has a detailed report of what the convention rules committee decided over the weekend. In a compromise “unity amendment,” the Democrats opted to open up a reform committee, as they did in 2008. Back then, they reduced the number of superdelegates. This time, the plan is to keep that number, but to eliminate the independent voice of the supers who are members of the Democratic National Committee.

Elected officials (governors and members of the House and Senate) will not be affected. They will retain their automatic status as superdelegates, and remain unpledged, free to vote however and for whomever they wish at the convention. But members of the Democratic National Committee will, under the proposed plan, no longer be free agents. They will be required to vote for the candidate that their states’ voters chose in caucuses and primaries.

Superdelegates serve two good purposes. One is to allow important people in the party to attend the convention as delegates. The other is to provide a backstop for the voters. If no one in a multi-candidate field has a majority of regular delegates, the supers can put a candidate with a plurality of votes over the top. They can also give a candidate with a slim majority a more comfortable margin of victory.

Critics of the Democrats’ current system complain that the superdelegates have the ability to block a candidate they strongly oppose, if that candidate has a slim majority of pledged delegates. In fact, this is highly unlikely to happen, except in extraordinary circumstances.

In my view, the system of superdelegates has worked well since first being installed for the 1984 presidential cycle. Their enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton this time around only supplemented her solid advantage in pledged delegates and in primary results. 

That said, cutting back their influence isn’t unreasonable. The best way to do that, however, would have been to give them weaker voting strength, perhaps by giving members of the DNC half-votes instead of full votes, rather than by binding them to a candidate. 

Letting them keep their full votes but tying them to a candidate is asking for trouble.

Since 1980, Democrats have relied on “slating” -- allowing the candidates to select their own delegates -- rather than on rules requiring delegates to do what the voters intended (that’s why you’ll hear about “pledged” and not “bound” delegates in Philadelphia). Superdelegates were neither pledged nor bound. Now, party reformers want to convert one group -- members of the Democratic National Committee -- into delegates bound to follow the results of primaries and caucus, regardless of their personal preferences. The problem is that political actors forced to act against their will tend to revolt.

The last thing Democrats should encourage is a future battle pitting the instructions of voters against the consciences of the delegates. It’s a battle the party is bound to lose, whatever the outcome.

  1. Bound delegates who do not wish to be bound will, as Democrats did in 1980 and as Republicans did last week in Cleveland, try to change the rules and free themselves. Even if they fail, as in both of those cases, it creates a mess.

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

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net