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.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, 2020 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held 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 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Mike Schilling says:

    The lesson of Trump is not that the party organization should have a smaller say.

  2. Kathy says:

    My interest in politics waxes and wanes, but lately it has become integrated with my long-time interest in history. IMO, the lesson of Trump is not to underestimate any support the other candidate may have, nor to count on any party, political or otherwise, to put country before party any time soon. A third lesson is that if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and leaves duck s**t all over, it will continue to be a duck after the election.

    I’ve also been posing counterfactuals, being as I am also interested in alternate history.

    For instance, had any other Democrat secured the nomination, they probably would have beaten trump soundly, as they’d have lacked Clinton’s pre-existing negatives (reminder: Sanders is not a Democrat).

    On the flip side, had Cruz, Rubio or Kasich secured the GOP nomination, they’d probably have defeated Clinton soundly in the electoral and popular vote.

  3. SKI says:

    Reality is that superdelegates have never swung a nomination since they were introduced in the 70s. And they never will, these reforms or not. They are mostly a talking point by campaigns that want to play the anti-establishment, underdog card.

    Their best use is in signalling to the members of the party who the leaders think is their preferred candidate. Whether they are effective in that, however, particularly in an age of more widespread information is somewhat questionable.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    I fail to see what real problem eliminating superdelegates is supposed to solve. One would hope Dems would learn from the failings of the Rs.

    However, had the Rs had superdelegates and Trump had come out of the primaries with a thin majority, do you really think a single one of the gutless spitweasels would have risked the wrath of the base by voting to replace Trump?

  5. Mister Bluster says:

    …your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good lookin’…

    a.) Fake News
    b.) Counterfactual
    c.) Alternate Reality
    d.) God’s Honest Truth

  6. Charon says:


    (reminder: Sanders is not a Democrat).

    With the ability to get his way by (implicitly) the threat of a third-party candidacy he presents.

    Pro-caucus guy also for obvious reasons.

  7. Kathy says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Counterfactuals are irresistible to seasoned historians, and more so to amateurs and people like me who just like studying history. There are so many turning points in history, it’s just impossible to resist speculating how things might have been different.

    Also, sometimes they show that the specifics might have changed, but not the overall trend. For instance, had Hannibal not invaded Italy, there would still probably have been further conflict between Rome and Carthage, as two expansionist empires in the same region are bound to come to blows. Rome had the better army (Carthage used mercenaries) and organization, so…

  8. Trakar Shaitanaku says:

    Doug sounds like a real neoliberal Democrat, too bad he is more interested in saving his vision of the party, instead of thinking about the benefit to the nation of a Democratic party that is interested in promoting and defending Democracy in America. If the right-leaning corporatist centrists give Trump another term (to match the first one they gifted him by foisting Hillary as the only other option to Trump in 2016) I will pledge to never pull the lever for a candidate with a (D) associated with their name ever again.

  9. @Trakar Shaitanaku:

    Your comment is amusing because, well, I’m not a Democrat at all and most certainly not a “neoliberal,” whatever that means.

    Now, if you have something substantive to say about the superdelegate issue, please feel free to contribute.

  10. Kathy says:


    Just shorthand for “Sanders would not count as any democrat other than Clinton.”

  11. Mister Bluster says:

    had Cruz, Rubio or Kasich secured the GOP nomination, they’d probably have defeated Clinton soundly in the electoral and popular vote.
    Probably??….Absolutley no way to know this.

    Let’s offer up another counterfactual about the 2016 United States Presidential Election Campaign.
    Hillary Clinton probably would have won the election if she had revealed her bout with pneumonia to the public sooner than she did.
    Hillary Clinton says she didn’t disclose pneumonia as she ‘didn’t think it was that big a deal’

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Trakar Shaitanaku: Okay, I give up. What’s the third alternative? For me, it’s “don’t vote,” but I’m not handing out ultimatums either.

  13. Kathy says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Let’s offer up another counterfactual about the 2016 United States Presidential Election Campaign.
    Hillary Clinton probably would have won the election if she had revealed her bout with pneumonia to the public sooner than she did.

    Counterfactuals are pure speculation, and they cannot be proven.

    But then there’s chaos theory. If small actions can have big consequences, then in a close election, perhaps that small action by Clinton wins the election. But then there were plenty of not-small actions by Mangolini which failed to have much of an effect.

  14. Mister Bluster says:

    @Kathy:..Counterfactuals are pure speculation, and they cannot be proven.

    Kind of like asking how many angels can dance on the tip of Trumps pointy head.

  15. MarkedMan says:

    @Mike Schilling:

    The lesson of Trump is not that the party organization should have a smaller say

    Exactly this. If a Trump were to be nominated by the voters on the Democratic side, the Super Delegates are there to jump on the hand grenade and stop that person from winning the election. Of course the election would be lost, but that doesn’t matter. This is a lesser of two evils situation.

    In a two party system it’s hard to talk about Party values, but in the end, they do have values and the most core of their values shouldn’t be up for popular vote.

    Look at it this way. I contend that Trump is an accurate reflection of virtually everything the modern day Republican Party stands for with the sole exception of using dog whistles instead of honestly stating what they mean. I’m pretty sure that James Joyner would disagree with me. He considers Trump an aberration. If the Republicans had retained their super delegate system we would know that answer. If they had supported Trump, then Trump is a reflection of what the party has truly come to stand for. If they had accepted virtually certain electoral defeat rather than put this racist piece of trash on their platform and voted him down, then we would know that the party has at least some bridges it will not cross.*

    *I would argue that the Republican refusal to provide any meaningful oversight seals the question in and of itself, but it is obviously a more shaded argument than if party officials had actually voted him up or down.

  16. MarkedMan says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Kind of like asking how many angels can dance on the tip of Trumps pointy head.

    Which head? Because for one of them the answer would be very, very few….

  17. Kathy says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Oh, that one’s easy:

    1) define and measure the pointy head
    2) ask the angels what kind of HAZMAT suite they’d require
    3) measure the area per suited angel
    4) divide 1) by 3)

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    If you believe in free market capitalism and free trade, especially as they’re construed in the United States, you’re a neoliberal.

  19. An Interested Party says:

    Kind of like asking how many angels can dance on the tip of Trumps pointy head.

    They wouldn’t be able to dance because they would get mired down in the cotton candy…

  20. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Trakar Shaitanaku:
    Where do these trolls come from and what are they trying to accomplish?

  21. Todd says:

    I’m honestly conflicted about this issue, and my reason is going to sound condescending no matter how I try to shape it …

    I think we’ve gotten to the point where the average citizen is just too misinformed, about too many things, to make rational choices in most voting decisions. Because of this, I’m not sure that popular primaries are necessarily giving us the best options when it comes to general election candidates (and the 2016 Presidential race would be a strong exhibit in favor of this idea).

    Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine that either of our political parties would do a much better job, if left to their own devices. Actually, looking at 2016, one could argue that the Republicans were likely hurt more by the primary process. The Democrats would have nominated Hillary Clinton (a weak candidate with a strong resume) either way. But had the Republican party had more control over their process, we might just have a President Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio in the White House right now.

    In the short term, Democrats changing their nominating process to give super delegates less influence, may somewhat mollify millennial progressives. However, come 2020, if/when their preferred candidate still doesn’t win the nomination, they will most likely just find another reason to feel “cheated”.

  22. @Dave Schuler:

    I’m at the point where I don’t care about the labels anymore. They’ve essentially lost all meaning.