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What role for Democratic 'super-delegates'?

Voters don’t choose the 842 unpledged “super-delegates” who comprise nearly 40 percent of the number of delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination. What role do they play?
NJ Governor Corzine Endorses Clinton For President
Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey proclaims his support for Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton in Elizabeth, N.J. on April 2.Chris Hondros / Getty Images file
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It’s called the Democratic Party, but one aspect of the party’s nominating process is at odds with grass-roots democracy.

Voters don’t choose the 842 unpledged “super-delegates” who comprise nearly 40 percent of the number of delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination.

The category includes Democratic governors and members of Congress, former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, former vice president Al Gore, retired congressional leaders such as Dick Gephardt, and all Democratic National Committee members, some of whom are appointed by party chairman Howard Dean.

The Republicans do not have a similar super-delegate system.

These super-delegates don’t have superhuman powers, but unlike rank-and-file Democrats, they do automatically get to cast a vote at the convention to decide who the party’s nominee will be.

Although dubbed “unpledged” in Democratic Party lingo, the super-delegates are free to come out before their state’s primary and pledge to support one of the presidential contenders.

On Tuesday Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski announced she was supporting Sen. Hillary Clinton and three weeks ago, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine declared that he's also backing her. These aren't mere endorsements; these are actual votes putting Clinton two steps closer to the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination.

Why the 'super-delegate' system?
Why did the party adopt this partly undemocratic system?

Super-delegates were supposed to supply some Establishment stability to the nominating process.

Before 1972, party elders, such as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Charlie Buckley, the boss of The Bronx who helped John Kennedy clinch the 1960 nomination, wielded inordinate power.

But in early 1970’s, the party’s rules were reformed to open the process to grass-roots activists, women, and ethnic minorities.

Sen. George McGovern, the leading anti-Vietnam war liberal, won the 1972 nomination. McGovern turned out to be a disaster as a presidential candidate, winning only one state and the District of Columbia.

So without reverting to the days of party bosses like Buckley, the Democrats decided to guarantee that elected officials would have a bigger voice in the nomination.

On the ballot with the candidate
“There was a belief that they would not want candidates who were dramatically out of sync with the rest of the party — particularly if these were people who were going to have to run on the same ticket with them,” says Northeastern University political scientist William Mayer, who has written extensively on the nomination process.

There were, Mayer says, two motives in giving elected officials a big voice in the nomination.

“One was not to get (ideologically) extreme candidates; the other was to avoid the Jimmy Carter phenomenon — where you had a guy who was not very experienced and not very well regarded by most of his fellow governors, but nevertheless managed to win the party’s nomination,” Mayer said.

“It’s a very important system because you have people who have a serious, serious stake in the outcome participating in the convention,” said Democratic National Committee member Elaine Kamarck, who teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Serving as 'safety valve'
Kamarck sees the super-delegates as a “sort of safety valve” so that, for instance, “if the convention’s platform committee is adopting something that would be really detrimental in the general election,” the party leaders can take steps to prevent that from happening.

But “it is very difficult to argue” that the super-delegate system “has consequences, unintended or intended,” said Mayer.

The only year when they may have an impact was in 1984, he said. The loyalty of Democratic elected officials probably helped Walter Mondale survive an unexpectedly strong challenge from Sen. Gary Hart who had beaten Mondale in New Hampshire and other primaries.

“The super-delegates clearly gave him his majority and helped him wrap up the nomination earlier,” Mayer said.

Evidence of momentum
Building the appearance of momentum and inevitability is why Clinton and her rivals will gradually be unveiling their endorsements by super-delegates.

Howard Dean's momentum appeared unstoppable in the first weeks of 2004. Super-delegate Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa said emotionally a few days before his state's caucuses, "In my entire adult lifetime, I have never seen anyone broaden our party and bring people in and excite young people... like Governor Howard Dean." It was powerful testimony from a hard-nosed politician.

Dean had amassed the most super-delegates before the Iowa caucuses. But many had buyer's remorse and some abandoned him once he finished a weak third in Iowa.

Democratic powerbroker (and super-delegate) Gerald McEntee, head of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, who had thrown his union behind Dean in November 2003, announced two weeks after Dean's loss in New Hampshire that he was abandoning him.

Dean loses super-delegates
In the two weeks following the Iowa caucuses, 36 of 132 Dean's super-delegates peeled away from him; while John Kerry's tally jumped from 74 to 102.

Other super-delegates who had delayed endorsing jumped on Kerry's bandwagon.

In next year's contest, could a candidate amass a stockpile of super-delegates, survive disappointing showings in early primaries, and go on to win the nomination? That seems unlikely.

“Do the super-delegates have the capacity to resist the choice of the overwhelming majority of primary voters and caucus participants? The answer, I think, is a clear ‘No,’” said Mayer.

Nevertheless, there’s a romantic streak in some political junkies who fantasize about a scenario in which the nomination could still be in doubt at the end of the primary season.

That hasn't happened in either party in 30 years.

In that scenario, perhaps party heavyweights would line up votes at the convention to swing the nomination to one of the contenders, or to a dark horse.