The Secret History of Superdelegates

The superdelegates’ kryptonite

In recent months, momentum has been building on the Left to overhaul the Democratic Party nomination system, including superdelegates—part of the larger “battle for the soul of the Democratic Party” that has emerged in and around Sanders’ campaign.

“The superdelegates are an acid test for whether you think the Democratic Party should be democratic,” says Ben Wikler, MoveOn’s Washington director.

MoveOn petitions in 48 states urging superdelegates to support primary and caucus winners have drawn a collective 380,000 signatures and swayed a number of superdelegates. One is Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who recanted his early commitment to Clinton and promised to vote for whomever wins the most pledged delegates.

Superdelegate and Florida Rep. Alan Grayson took a novel approach, holding an online election to determine his vote, which attracted nearly 400,000 people and saw Sanders win 84-16.

And on April 4, a Sanders fan created a “superdelegate hit list” (since rechristened a “superdelegate list”) with the contact information of superdelegates, allowing voters to get in touch and persuade them to switch their votes.

Some are going a step further and trying to remove superdelegates from the Democratic nominating process altogether. It’s the core demand of the March on the DNC, a convention protest organized by the Philadelphia-based Equality Coalition for Bernie Sanders.

The Sanders camp—which includes Grayson, campaign advisor Larry Cohen and Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva—and groups like MoveOn are also discussing plans to push for the abolition of superdelegates at the convention.

Both Grayson and Cohen point out that the Democratic superdelegates are uniquely undemocratic in the American party system. The Republican equivalent—168 party members who are guaranteed a vote at the convention—must vote in line with their respective states and only comprise 7 percent of the total delegates, compared to the DNC superdelegates’ 15 percent.

The Sanders campaign’s new superdelegate-courting strategy, however, raises questions about its ability to call for the abolition of superdelegates come July. Following Sanders’ April 19 defeat in New York, campaign manager Jeff Weaver confirmed that if Sanders trails Clinton in pledged delegates going into the convention, the campaign will attempt to win the nomination by appealing to superdelegates. “It’s going to be an election determined by the superdelegates,” he told MSNBC. “They’re going to want to win in November.” Asked about this, Cohen told In These Times the “campaign strategy is evolving.”

Some argue that superdelegates would never dare overturn the popular will. They point out that superdelegates have never supported a candidate who didn’t win in pledged delegates, as in 2008, when they began flocking to Obama once he started amassing primary victories. Reformers shoot back: Then what’s the point of having them at all?

Cohen also notes the “false momentum” created by superdelegates who support a candidate early—ironically, a problem that the Hunt Commission created superdelegates to combat.

R.T. Rybak, DNC vice chair and a superdelegate himself, says there’s no backroom dealing behind superdelegates’ early support for Clinton. “That reflects in large part elected officials with constituencies who are going largely for Clinton,” he says.

Of course, influence is rarely as simple as quid pro quo. Clinton has been a central figure and fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee for two decades, and is actively raising money for the party now via her joint fundraising committee with the DNC, the Hillary Victory Fund. Many superdelegates are Democratic officials who are in her debt.

Rybak points to the GOP’s current Trump woes as an example of superdelegates’ necessity. “There are times where strictly who voted in that year’s primaries is not completely representative,” he says.

Whatever happens, it’s clear the Hunt Commission’s vision is falling out of favor with many of today’s rank-and-file Democrats. But this current battle is nothing new. Party activists have battled against the party’s drift toward the right and away from the grassroots since the 1970s.

“The Republicans adopted a populist appeal at the same moment Democrats walked away from populism,” says Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

Did the Republican Party’s cultivation of its grassroots give it the edge over the Democratic Party?

“That is the big question of our time,” Frank says.

Whether or not the Hunt Commission reforms hurt the Democrats electorally, it’s clear that the party’s focus on winning gave it tunnel vision. The Commission discussions were peppered with hopeful declarations that if only the party could win back the enthusiasm of its elected officials by giving them more of a stake, victory would be assured. But there was no discussion of doing the same for the base.

For those seeking reform, the superdelegate issue, like so much else in the Democratic Party, comes down to democracy.

“Either we have a populist-based Democratic Party, or we have a party of the elite,” says Cohen. “It can’t be both.”

Shortly after this story went to press, the Maine Democratic Party voted to require that unpledged delegates cast their ballots in proportion to the popular vote, making Maine the first state to effectively abolish superdelegates. The change will take effect in 2020.

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