Democrats Finalize Superdelegate Reforms

Democrats have pulled the trigger and essentially eliminated the power of superdelegates except in the unlikely event that a nominating convention goes to a second ballot.

After several months of debates, proposals, and counterproposals, the Democratic National Committee has officially adopted changes in its nomination process that drastically reduce the power and influence of so-called “superdelegates” in the party’s nomination process:

CHICAGO — Democratic Party officials, after a yearslong battle between warring ideological wings, have agreed to sharply reduce the influence of the top political insiders known as superdelegates in the presidential nomination process.

Under the new plan, which was agreed to on Saturday afternoon in Chicago at the Democratic National Committee’s annual summer meetings, superdelegates retain their power to back any candidate regardless of how the public votes. They will now be largely barred, however, from participating in the first ballot of the presidential nominating process at the party’s convention — drastically diluting their power.

Superdelegates will be able to cast substantive votes only in extraordinary cases like contested conventions, in which the nomination process is extended through multiple ballots until one candidate prevails.

“After you lose an election, you have to look in the mirror,” said Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Dean had recorded a video message to committee members urging them to back the proposed changes.

“As a so-called superdelegate myself, I feel this is the best path forward,” he said. “It is exactly the kind of change we have to make, not just to strengthen our candidates, but to strengthen the view of the Democratic Party among its core group of voters, which is young Americans.”

Party officials also hope the rule changes will help bury vestiges of acrimony over the 2016 primary election.

Though superdelegates have never before overturned the will of Democratic voters in the presidential primary, their role caused deep tensions in the Democratic primary two years ago between Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Supporters of Mr. Sanders said these insiders — mostly elected officials, party leaders and donors — were emblematic of a “rigged” nomination system favoring Mrs. Clinton.

After Mrs. Clinton’s loss in the general election, party leaders committed to a wholesale re-examination of the party’s presidential nomination process, including easing some voting requirements, further encouraging grass-roots activism, increasing transparency surrounding presidential debates, as well as overhauling the superdelegate system.

Throughout the annual meeting in Chicago, some activists expressed concerns that the proposed changes to the superdelegate system would fail, particularly after several black party leaders expressed skepticism about the revisions. However, propelled by Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and by Mr. Dean and other prominent party leaders, the overhaul passed by an overwhelming margin.

There was a huge ovation, and some tears, when the final measure was passed.

“Today we demonstrated the values of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Perez said. “We want everyone to have a seat at the table. That’s what today is about.”

Mr. Sanders said in a statement, “Today’s decision by the D.N.C. is an important step forward in making the Democratic Party more open, democratic and responsive.”

The Washington Post’s David Weigel has more:

The Democratic National Committee voted Saturday to neutralize the votes of unpledged convention delegates, part of a package of hard-fought reforms designed to prevent a repeat of the bitter 2016 presidential primary as the party looks toward the 2020 election.

“We listened and we acted, and I’m proud that our party is doing everything we can to bring people in and make it easier to vote,” said DNC Chairman Tom Perez after the reforms were unanimously approved.

The new party rules undo decades-old reforms that empowered hundreds of party activists and elected officials, often referred to as “superdelegates,” whose presidential convention votes were not bound to the results of primaries or caucuses. They also affirm the decision of six states to move from caucuses, which have favored insurgent candidates, to primaries, which tend to have higher turnout.

The Democrats’ journey to that decision lasted more than two years, and divided party leaders even as activists who had supported both Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) organized behind them. Anger at the results of that primary campaign, and at Clinton’s defeat, has dogged the DNC under Perez’s leadership; despite a run of election wins, it has raised $116.5 million since the start of the cycle, compared with $227.2 million for the RNC.

To mollify supporters of Sanders, Democrats in July 2016 created a Unity Reform Commission that met four times through 2017. It originally proposed a cut to the total number of superdelegates, a move that was changed when the reform package got to the Rules and Bylaws Committee, which met four more times to debate amendments. The eventual compromise — to prevent all superdelegates from voting unless a convention went to a second ballot — was proposed by Ken Martin, the chairman of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL).

“This is a way for us to heal the wounds of the 2016 election,” Martin said in an interview before the vote. “Minnesota was a 62 percent Bernie state. People cared about this. We were dealing with a perception problem more than a reality problem, but that perception problem mattered. People believed so passionately that this issue cost their candidate the nomination, that we had to fix it.”

The debate rested on an inaccuracy — Clinton won more regular delegates than Sanders, as well as more superdelegates, so the latter did not give her the nomination. But the desire to cure what Martin called the 2016 “hangover” pervaded the four-day meeting.

The years-long reform process, longer than America’s involvement in World War I, burned out many of the critics. A Thursday strategy session against the reforms attracted just 15 DNC members; a Friday morning news conference by superdelegate opponents unfolded before one lonely TV camera.

“It is really kind of bizarre to be on the same side of Tom Perez on some of these issues,” said Selina Vickers, a West Virginia activist who began a hunger strike at the start of the convention and did not break it until the reforms were passed.

Perez and other delegate reform supporters succeeded in weakening the establishment opposition by giving it more time to protest. But the opposition made one final push, picking up on a theme that the Congressional Black Caucus had aired last month — that to take away the votes of black superdelegates was to effectively suppress them. The unofficial leaders of that faction, former party chair Don Fowler and California DNC member Bob Mulholland, are white. But Mulholland, a gruff Vietnam veteran, invoked the legacy of the civil rights movement to argue that his party risked alienating its most loyal voters to appease a faction of elite Sanders fans.

“There’s an awful lot of white males pushing this [reform] idea, and they have no idea of the message this is sending to the Latino community and the African American community,” Mulholland said Friday. “If I was Trump, and the DNC decided it’s not going to let black members of Congress on the floor to vote, I’d exploit the hell out of that. ‘The Democrats just threw out your vote!’ ”

But that message did not unify the DNC’s black members, some of whom pointed out that the 2016 pool of superdelegates skewed whiter than the delegates elected through primaries.

The roots that led to this change date back two years ago in the wake of what turned out to be a surprisingly tough and at times bitter primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who of course was Clinton’s primary challenger for the Democratic nomination even though he is not a member of the Democratic Party. Long before the first votes were cast, the vast majority of Democratic superdelegates had pledged their support to Clinton. Mostly, of course, this was due to the fact Clinton had spent the eight years since losing the 2008 nomination to Barack Obama building relationships with party elites and the fact that, by the time the Democratic field was set, Clinton appeared to be the most electable candidate in the race for the party’s nomination. Even as Sanders surprised most analysts and started pulling off victories in party caucuses and some primaries, those superdelegates remained loyal to Clinton and others pledged their support to her as it becomes increasingly obvious that Clinton was going to win the nomination and, based on the polling, that she was a clear favorite over the apparent Republican nominee Donald Trump. In the end, as it had in the past, this support from superdelegates didn’t actually impact the outcome of the race of the race for the nomination since Clinton won support from enough regular delegates to win the nomination outright.

While the Clinton-Sanders race came to an end, the debate that it had created over the role of superdelegates in the party’s nomination process didn’t, and many Sanders supporters walked away from the long primary fight with the feeling that Clinton’s superdelegate support had somehow weighted the process in her favor. This led to a wider battle about reforms to the nomination process that began almost as soon as the primary battle ended. On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, for example, it was reported that the party was considering a plan for future nomination fights that would have required superdelegates to vote according to the outcome of the primary or caucus in their respective states on the first ballot at the national convention. After that, they would be free to toss their support to any candidate they chose. More recently, in anticipation of last week’s summer meeting, Democratic officials have been considered another plan under which the role of superdelegates on the first ballot would essentially be non-existent. For rather obvious reasons, these proposed changes were objected to by Congressional Democrats in no small part because it would significantly reduce their power inside the party. Despite these objections,  the DNC moved forward with the process anyway and put forward a proposal that would bar superdelegates from participating in the first ballot at the convention at all, a rule change that would effectively make them meaningless given that its unlikely that a modern convention will go to a second ballot any time in near future. This is the proposal that was approved at the meeting in Chicago, and which will be in effect for at least the 2020 nomination battle.

Given the fact that we haven’t seen a convention that has gone beyond the first ballot in the modern era, this new rule essentially means that Democratic superdelegates have become essentially irrelevant. The only manner in which this might change could depend on what kind of Presidential field the Democrats have in 2020. As of today, there isn’t a potential Democratic candidate out there who seems likely to overshadow everyone else in the manner that Clinton did in 2016 or in the way that Clinton and former President Obama did in 2008. This could mean that Democrats will be faced with something similar to what the Republicans faced in 2016 when they had a historically large field of candidates that took some time to winnow down, one of the many reasons that Donald Trump was able to turn himself into an inevitable nominee by the time the GOP field was small enough to make a difference. A similarly large field of Democratic candidates in 2020 could make it hard for any candidate to amass the majority of pledged delegates they would need to win the nomination. This is particularly problematic for Democrats given that their rules require that delegates be allocated proportionally, a rule that allows marginal candidates to stay in the race as long as they still have money while denying those at the top of the pack the delegates they need to win on the first ballot.

Jazz Shaw touches on this theme in his post on the vote:

So what will this mean in the 2020 primary? If the party manages to put up a consensus candidate (is there any such thing anymore?) who can quickly clear the field and take a sizable lead it won’t mean much of anything. Assuming the Democrats arrive at their convention with one candidate who has a significant majority of the pledged delegates, the superdelegates still get to vote in the first round and it’s all just a formality.

But what if they don’t? The one danger lurking here for the DNC, as I’ve written here before, is that somebody as far out on the left beam as Bernie Sanders (or even further) picks up a head of steam and starts winning some early states. Without the fear of being left backing a losing horse when the superdelegates put their collective thumb on the scale for a more conventional candidate, a lot more of those noisy socialists might come out of the woodwork and nominate a really fringe candidate. What if they go whole hog and decide to nominate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? After all, if you can go straight from bartender to congresswoman, why not make the leap two years later to the White House?

This is the stuff that gives senior Democratic Party leaders nightmares. Their voters came withing spitting distance of nominating a card-carrying socialist last time around and it divided the party in two. Without the superdelegates acting as the adult monitors in the room, who might they nominate next?

Jazz is obviously being tongue-in-cheek at the mention of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the candidate for Congress who has become something of a media star and a star among the Democratic Party’s “progressive” win since she is only 28 years old and thus ineligible to run for office. Nonetheless, the point he raises has merit. At least in part, the superdelegates were introduced into the process to prevent what happened to Democrats in 1972 when the party was ripped apart in the wake of the 1968 election and George McGovern, a candidate representing what was arguably at that time the equivalent of the wing represented by people like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez today, only to see itself suffer a historic defeat in the General Election and to avoid the intra-party battle that resulted in 1980 when Ted Kennedy challenged and nearly defeated President Jimmy Carter in a campaign that left the party weak and divided and ripe for the picking in the General Election. The superdelegates were supposed to be the means by which the party could take control of the process and hopefully prevent a repeat of those elections. Now, those superdelegates are essentially powerless unless the nomination fight goes to a second ballot. Ultimately, this strikes me as unlikely because the natural tendency in past nomination fights has been for voters to eventually unite behind a smaller group of candidates and for the eventual nominee to emerge from that group. Who that person might be at this point is something that I don’t think anyone can predict accurately, but it seems like the most likely outcome in the long run. Nonetheless, the possibility for chaos exists and it will be far harder for the party to control now.

As I’ve noted before, though, if Democrats really want to reform the nominating process they ought to consider other alternatives:

If Democrats wanted to reform their process, they ought to be considering issues that go far beyond the rather irrelevant issue of superdelegates. For example, one of the main reasons that the primary battles in 2008 and 2016 were so drawn out is because current party rules require all states to award delegates on a proportional basis. This means that the candidate who wins the primary doesn’t really get much of an advantage from doing so and the process ends up getting dragged out longer than it ought to be because it becomes harder for a nominee to get the majority they need to win the nomination. Additionally, it seems to be long past time for both national parties to take a long and hard look at the whole idea of caucuses selecting delegates rather than primaries. As I’ve stated before, caucuses are a highly deficient means for selecting a nominee because they tend to lead to far lower participation by voters, don’t allow for early or absentee voting, and require people who may not have the means to do so to attend long party meetings at times that may be inconvenient for them. This is something that both national parties ought to look to, although in the end there isn’t much they can do about it since it’s an issue determined by state law and the preferences of state parties.

These changes to the nominating process would go much further to fixing the problems that the DNC seems to want to address than these rather meaningless changes to how superdelegates are used.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. gVOR08 says:

    Totally off topic, but funny, Trump is on the TV behind me signing his new trade deal and failing to connect with the President of Mexico on the phone, until an aide came in to work the phone. He was going “Enrique?”…”Are you there , Enrique?” in an unconscious spot on imitation of Peter Sellers as President Muffley going, “Dmitri?”