Democrats Targeting Superdelegates In Reforms To Nomination Process
Democratic Party officials are working on plans that would significantly revise the party’s Presidential nomination process, with the most significant change being the reduction in the power of so-called ‘superdelegates’:
Democratic Party officials, desperate to present a unified front in advance of the all-important 2018 midterms, are working to revamp their presidential nominating process and erase the final vestiges of the bitter 2016 presidential primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders.
The most significant, and divisive, step would involve reducing the role and power of superdelegates — the unpledged party insiders who are free to back any candidate regardless of how the public votes — ahead of the 2020 election. Their influence caused substantial tension two years ago when supporters of Mr. Sanders zeroed in on superdelegates as “undemocratic” and said they created an unfair and even rigged system favoring Mrs. Clinton.
Now, party officials, including loyalists held over from both the Sanders and Clinton camps, are inching toward a compromise that would not only minimize the role of superdelegates but change the party’s operational structure as well.
The ideas on the table range from eliminating superdelegates altogether to reducing their numbers significantly — from more than 700 currently to about 280. Some officials said they preferred a proposal in which only elected government officials, and not party leaders, retain their superdelegate status.
The final agreement could be completed in late August, as party officials try to get their house in order and suppress talk of an continuing Clinton-Sanders divide within the Democratic National Committee.
“People are getting to a decent place,” said David Pepper, a committee member and the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “I think there’s an understanding that if we spend all our time in this internal discussion — so much so that it becomes our external message — then we’ve become off message with voters.”
Superdelegates, of course, have been a powerful force in the Democratic nomination process in the wake of the 1972 primaries that led to the nomination of George McGovern as the party’s nominee and a landslide victory for Richard Nixon that wasn’t even close to being a contest. [Note: Please see the update below for a claification] After that disaster, Democratic Party insider moved to make reforms to the nominating process to prevent what happened in that election when grassroots activists upset after the events of 1968 worked to push McGovern through notwithstanding the fact that it was clear from the beginning that he didn’t have any chance against Nixon even under the most optimistic scenarios. In addition to changes to the primary process itself, the party also created the so-called ‘superdelegates,’ which consist of elected officials such as Members of Congress, Senators, and certain state elected officials as well as members of the Democratic National Committee and other party officials. Unlike delegates selected via the primary process that are bound to the candidate who wins the primary or caucus, these delegates are essentially free agents who can shift their support from one candidate to another at will and, at least theoretically, use their power to block a McGovern-like nominee from rising up as he did in 1972.
In practice, these superdelegates have not played a decisive role in selecting a party nominee in the forty-odd years that they have been in use. Every Democratic nominee from Jimmy Carter forward to Hillary Clinton has had sufficient support among the regular delegates selected via the primary process to win the nomination. That hasn’t stopped them from being the source of controversy, though. In 2008, for example, many Obama supporters were upset by the fact that Democratic superdelegates continued to support Hillary Clinton even as their candidate continued to rack up primary victories. In the end, of course, a good number of those superdelegates ended up shifting their support to Obama and there was no controversy by the end of the process. Nonetheless, the seeds for a revolt over the superdelegate issue were planted.
In 2016, the superdelegate debate reared its head yet again as Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who, I will again restate for the record, is not a Democrat, battled for the Democratic nomination. Even before the first votes had been cast in the Democratic primaries, though, the vast majority of Democratic superdelegates had pledged their support to Clinton. To a large degree, of course, this was due to the fact that Clinton and her husband had widespread support inside the Democratic Party and that the Democratic field was widely, and largely correctly, viewed as being quite weak while Clinton appeared for all the world to be the most electable candidate willing to run that the party could put forward. Even as Senator Sanders won party caucuses and some primaries, he was unable to gain much support among the superdelegates, who continued to remain loyal to Clinton. This, of course, led many of his supporters to claim that the primary process was rigged against him even though it was clear that, while Sanders was winning in some races, he was utterly failing in the seemingly simple task of winning states that actually matter or, most importantly, attracting support from African-American and other minority groups. In the end, of course, this superdelegate support did not make a real difference in the race. Clinton ended up winning support from “regular” delegates to win the nomination outright, and the support of the superdelegates once again proved to be non-decisive.
This isn’t the first discussion that Democrats have had about superdelegates since the end of the 2016 campaign. In the summer of 2016, for example, it was reported that the party was considering a plan that would require at least some superdelegates to vote according to the outcome in their respective states at least on the first ballot at the national convention. After that, they would be free to toss their support to one candidate or another if a second or subsequent ballot were required. As I noted at the time, that plan was somewhat confusing since it was unclear what, if any, purpose superdelegates would even serve at this point given the fact that a national convention that goes beyond the first ballot has not happened in quite some time. The current proposal is different from that one, though, as it would significantly cut back on the number of superdelegates. As with the 2016 proposal, it’s unclear what the point of such a plan would be given the fact that superdelegates have not actually decided the winner of the Democratic nomination since they were first introduced after 1972.
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.
As things stand now, these latest proposals at reform are just that, proposals. In the end, the actual changes that the party adopts may end up being far less wide-ranging as this proposal appears to be. At the same time, though, it seems clear that if Democrats want to clean up their nominating process they need to do more than just look at superdelegates.
Update 6/7/2018: While the 1972 election played a role in the evolution of the role of superdelegates, the present rules regarding their role were not finalized until after the 1980 election and the divisive primary battle between President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy.