Twilight of the Superdelegates


This election cycle has really been a lesson in American politics. The most significant lesson comes with an awakening and clarifying awareness of how delegates are selected in both parties’ nominating process. We’ve always known that delegates played a role in selecting presidential nominees, but we always embraced the pleasant fiction that there was some connection between the will of the voters and the selection of delegates. This cycle, however, the rifts within both political parties are revealed in sharp contrast. The arcane party rules of the nomination process has taken center stage, and few people really know or understand what they are looking at.

The Backstory

The story really begins in 1968. In that year the edifice of the presidential nomination process collapsed. Prior to that year, choosing a nominee was exclusively a party affair. Political machines all over the country caucused behind closed doors and decided on the most electable candidate who thought would best represent the party. Yes, there were primaries that had mostly symbolic meaning, but the ultimate decision lay with party operatives themselves.

The late sixties, however, were a time of exceptional political mobilization, mostly in response to the Vietnam War on the left and a reaction to the seeming abandonment of law and order on the right. It was also a time in which television was a universal political entity, bringing the nomination process into almost everyone’s living room. In 1968, the grassroots clearly supported Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, both running against the Vietnam War. When Kennedy was assassinated, this left McCarthy holding the grassroots banner. When the candidate was announced at the Chicago Convention, however, chaos ensued. In the face of popular rejection, the party nominated establishment, pro-war candidate, Hubert Humphrey, a man who had not won nor even run in any primaries. The confrontations taking place on the convention floor were second in anger and animus only to the riots taking place between protestors and Charles Daly’s police . The divided Democrats were soundly defeated and the nation ended up with Richard Nixon.

After the 1968 debacle, Senator George McGovern and Representative Donald Fraser chaired a commission to re-write the rules for nominating presidential candidates. The result was the McGovern-Fraser Report that suggested opening the nominating process to all party members. According to Branko Marcetic, writing in In These Times, “These rules would lead to an explosion in the number of primaries. They more than doubled from 17 in 1968 to 35 in 1980. While only 13 million Americans participated in the 1968 nominating process, 32 million did in 1980.” It looked like democracy was finally brought to the Democratic Party.

Unfortunately, many considered this a catastrophic event. In 1972, George McGovern himself was nominated and was soundly defeated by Richard Nixon in the worst presidential election blowout in American History. Then, though the anti-establishment Jimmy Carter easily defeated the politically doomed Gerald Ford under the dark cloud of Watergate in 1976, he was handily defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 in the second worst presidential blowout in American History.

The Democratic Party attributed these setbacks to democratic participation. In essence, the Democratic establishment claimed that the people were incapable of choosing an electable candidate. This important matter was best left to expert political operatives. There were other reasonable explanations, of course, but scapegoating democracy is always an easy sell among political elites. Clearly the Democratic Party would be better served by a little less democracy. The Hunt Commission was born. Though the Hunt Commission did make some strides toward guaranteeing a more representative delegation in terms of women and people of color, it also rolled back the democratic reforms of McGovern-Fraser by, among other things, creating superdelegates unaccountable to the party membership. In this way it became next to impossible for a grassroots, progressive Democratic candidate to win nomination.

The results were less than spectacular. Ronald Reagan won re-election. George H. W. Bush defeated the milquetoast Dukakis in 1988. Democrats finally elected the Blue Dog Bill Clinton in 1992 only to lose Congress in 1994. It’s a matter of interest that these setbacks were never attributed to a lack of democracy.


Byzantine rules guiding the internal mechanisms of institutions always serve the purposes of the leadership or, as we’ve come to identify such in party politics, the establishment. Such rules require experts with a level of understanding that is outside of the experience of laypeople. These experts are selected by the elite or the establishment to serve its own ends. When it comes to the arcana guiding organizations, these ends are simple: to perpetuate the institution and to guarantee the primacy of the existing establishment. The complexity of the rules ensure that the organization is protected from more democratic influences.

However, it is incumbant upon the institution to keep such arrangements shielded from public scrutiny. In party politics, so long as the process appears to be fairly disposed, the legitimacy of the institution can rest more or less unquestioned. Under normal circumstances, so long as the party establishment enjoys relatively unquestioned legitimacy, the rules are of little concern to lay people.

When the legitimacy of the party establishment is questioned, however, as it is in this election cycle, the validity of the rules supporting the elite may be placed under the public spotlight. When that happens, when the cloak of simplicity falls from the convoluted edifice, the people may find that their beliefs about their organization are not sustainable. In this regard, the belief that the primary process involves people voting for who they want and the person with the most votes winning is clearly not as advertised. When it turns out that this simple metric is more complicated, then the very legitimacy of the institution is called into question. That’s a real problem for political entities looking for votes.

Now on the Republican end of the ticket, the legitimacy of the rules came under scrutiny with the rise of a right-wing nationalist, Donald Trump, who captured the imaginations of American conservatives. It turned out that American conservatives were motivated less by small-government and free markets, the language of the pro-corporate, Republican elite, than they were by fears for the plight of white, male privilege. That such fears were stoked by the corporatist elite in order to convince the electorate to vote against their self-interest is an irony creating a mini-crisis for the party establishment.

The legitimacy of the process was of concern when it appeared that party leaders would try to hijack the process against the popular will of their constituents. The outcry among the base was such that the establishment more or less backed down. The less glamorous delegate rules faded into the background. As Trump admitted, he had a problem with the delegate rules until he won. Now he doesn’t care. It appears that that is also true for the GOP as a whole. It appears that, true to form, Republicans are falling in line. If the GOP elite do end up hijacking the process from the convention floor, things may become much more dramatic. The GOP establishment may be best served by playing the odds, keeping their heads down, and working toward preserving their ends in the face of popular uprising.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is a bit of a different beast. In this organization, the challenger to the establishment is, in fact, losing. Ironically, this may result in even greater scrutiny of the delegate selection process. The Sanders campaign does have an argument about the process. Clearly, the Democratic nominating process was going to be tilted toward the establishment candidate from the beginning. After all, Sanders has only been a Democrat since the primaries. From the beginning, objective observers in the face of some impressive victories on Sanders’ part, doubted his ability to turn the superdelegates.

Yet, if we step away from the “stolen primary” arguments that dominate the discourse on the Sanders side of the debate there are some valid questions that must be addressed. How did the very existence of superdelegates influence primary voters? Might the Democratic primaries have gone differently if superdelegates were not a variable? In other words, how many Democrats have chosen to support Hillary simply because they correctly perceived that the superdelegate advantage was too steep a hill for Bernie to climb? How many African-Americans, for instance, are strategically supporting the former Goldwater Girl over the man who marched with Dr. King because it’s better to run with the winner?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. It may be that the end results would have been much the same. The problem is that nobody knows the answers to these questions, so we are forced to speculate. When forced to speculate, we will do so in support of our own biases. As it stands, the questions above challenges the legitimacy of the Democratic nominating process and thus, the party itself. This legitimacy is further diminished with the obvious efforts on the part of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz to tilt the playing field toward her preferred candidate. As Bill Moyers reminds us:

It’s the skullduggery going on within the Democratic Party establishment that’s our current concern and as we wrote in March, Rep. Wasserman Schultz “has played games with the party’s voter database, been accused of restricting the number of Democratic candidate debates and scheduling them at odd days and times to favor Hillary Clinton, and recently told CNN’s Jake Tapper that superdelegates — strongly establishment and pro-Clinton — are necessary at the party’s convention so deserving incumbent officials and party leaders don’t have to run for delegate slots ‘against grassroots activists.’ Let that sink in, but hold your nose against the aroma of entitlement.” [Boldface added by me]

As a backdrop, against this tragic political opera, we have absolutely huge campaign events organized by the Sanders campaign dwarfing such events for other candidates, including the Democratic front-runner. To progressives and other Sanders supporters, there is a clear odor of rat in the air.  The very existence of superdelegates in what is supposed to be a “democratic” party invalidates any such claim that the party actually represents its members.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton also has a grievance against the very superdelegate system that supports her. After all, she is winning the primary. According to Real Clear Politics, Hillary is winning by almost 23%. Let’s face it. Even if we factor out all of the questionable variables above, what is the likelihood that Bernie could make up over 3 million votes? Unfortunately, the very existence of superdelegates, recognized by the DNC chair as existing for the sake of keeping down the grassroots, becomes problematic when the “grassroots” constitutes over 40% of primary voters.

If, as the evidence really does suggests, Hillary would win against Bernie Sanders in a direct election, regardless of superdelegates, then the existence of this mechanism only serves to discredit her candidacy in the eyes of the base. It appears to be frustrating Clinton that there are so many “what ifs” hanging over her nomination despite the evidence of her clear victory. The base already distrusts the Democratic establishment, and for good reason.  The arcane superdelegate process only makes it more difficult for Clinton to woo the progressive base when they perceive, however unrealistically, that they have been robbed of their political will.

Party rules are subject to change. The Democratic Party rose from promises and policies of expanding the franchise and opportunities for land (yes, for white men). The nation’s oldest political party would eventually embrace Populism, Progressivism and would purge itself of its segregationist roots to uphold principles of racial, ethnic, gender and sexual equality. Evolution does happen, but so does historical regression. In the early seventies, the Democratic Party had the opportunity to become a truly democratic party, but it sold its soul to the rising corporatism of the eighties and nineties, exploiting its base using political blackmail–vote for us if you want to keep Social Security.

It’s now clear that the corporate elite no longer needs two parties, and their preference is equally clear. If the Democratic Party does not embrace democratic principles then it will become increasingly irrelevant to voters with such ideals. Voters can only be convinced to act out of desperation for so long before they start voting their conscience even in the face of possible future hardship. A new McGovern-Fraser must be negotiated if the Democratic Party is to remain relevant in American politics.

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