The Case Against Superdelegates

| by Nicholas Roberts
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of VermontFormer Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont

In a democratic country, few things are more ironic than the idea the nominee of a party that calls itself the Democratic Party could be chosen by a decidedly undemocratic group of "superdelegates," or party mandarins, elected and unelected, who are automatically entered into the Democratic delegation by virtue of their positions.  

Yet here we are.

Democratic presidential candidate front-runner Hillary Clinton is currently leading her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, in all three categories of importance for the party's nomination: she leads Sanders in the popular vote, in the number of pledged delegates to her and the number of "superdelegates."

As The New York Times' Emma Roller notes, superdelegates in the modern Democratic Party were created in 1981, after incumbent President Jimmy Carter's stunning loss to Republican Ronald Reagan. Carter had cast himself as an outsider in 1976, four years after the party had nominated the left-wing candidate George McGovern -- a candidate the Republicans derided as an advocate of amnesty, abortion and acid, as Eleanor Clift highlights -- as its nominee in 1972, reports The Daily Beast.

The Democratic Party was determined to make sure that an insurgent, populist, left-wing candidate could never again block the nomination from an "electable" candidate.

The fundamental problem with superdelegates is that, even though they have never actually decided who a Democratic presidential candidate would be since their inception -- although that streak may come to an end this year -- their existence creates a super-empowered class of officials who may be completely divorced from their party base's concerns.

And this is not something that can simply be dislodged from the political scene. These elites naturally want to retain their power and status within the party, which means that even if the title and position of "superdelegate" were abolished, they would simply run to be delegates of their own states. This effectively means they would have to run against their own constituents to get into a delegate slot, as Roller points out.

That Clinton still leads Sanders in the popular vote by more than 2 million votes would seem to suggest the Democrats will choose the "electable" candidate over the "maverick" one in the end anyway, which is in itself a sort of indictment of the need for superdelegates.

On the Republican side, the party uses all manner of tricks and rule changes to make sure an "electable" candidate is chosen at the convention every four years, but superdelegates do not play as large of a role. With the rise of GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, some Republican leaders surely are reconsidering the need for superdelegates in the future.

That both Sanders and Trump, the two candidates deemed to be more "maverick" and different from the rest of their opponents, keep gaining support in party systems which respectively both contain and lack superdelegates speaks to the populist groundswell that has endured throughout this election cycle.

It now seems possible the Democratic convention will be a brokered convention while it is now taken for certain that the Republicans will have a contested one, as both parties divide themselves into centrist and populist wings. If that happens, then perhaps the end of the Sixth Party System in the U.S. is near.

And if that happens, hopefully American political elites will see that superdelegates have only helped fuel anger at established political parties and have never been decisive in helping the party choose a nominee.  

However the primary nomination process is ever eventually reformed, there needs to be less room for superdelegates and more room for rank-and-file voters.

Sources: The New York Times, The Daily Beast / Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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