What is a superdelegate? Who is a superdelegate? How do I get one? Well, here is a post attempting to explain the Democratic phenomenon (those two words cancel each other out, as you will see soon) that are the superdelegates.

To begin with, only the Democratic party has superdelegates. They first came into the fold in the 1970s when the caucus and voting in the primary elections became most important to electing a party representative. To ensure that some control still remained in party official hands, the Democratic party created the ‘superdelegates’ titles, thus ensuring that 14% (though now as high as 20%) of all caucus votes could be controlled without a people’s vote.

Note from Thomas: That seems like a somewhat undemocratic process to me. But it also looks like an essential one too. It helps to save face with the party, and to even ensure that a certain person gets nominated. But it’s not a decision left to ‘the people’. Sort of like keeping a trump card to yourself and only yourself. A tough call to make on this front.

The Republican party, while they don’t have ‘official’ superdelegates, have 135 unpledged delegated (in the same way the superdelegates aren’t pledged). They play the same role as the superdelegates, though are obviously less in number. I suspect that they are there to ensure that a tie, or at least post-third round voting, doesn’t make the party look like a joke.

So what do these superdelegates do? Well, it’s rather simple. There are a certain number attached to each state, but not attached to the state’s voting. For example, take New Hampshire just gone. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote (40%), and will take 3 state and 6 district delegates from that. Barrack Obama came second (36%) and still wins 3 and 6 delegates from that too. However, the superdelegates are not bound to follow what the voters decide, and can freely choose who they want. So while Clinton may have own the 9 delegates from the New Hampshire vote, she only won 2 superdelegates over during the process. Obama won 3 superdelegates. At the end of the day, Obama wins more delegates from the state, 12 to 11.

The superdelegates are not bound to pledge their intentions on who they will vote for on the day of the vote. No, they are free to pledge much earlier or later. Thus, before the primary process even began, Clinton had a lead already because she had won over more superdelegates. During the 2004 cycle, and before the primary race began, Howard Dean was favourite to win the race. Why? Because he had won over more superdelegates. This is why schmoozing and charming in D.C. helps. Why you ask?

Simple: The superdelegates are elected party members who already hold an office or are party officials. For example, Senator Barack Obama is a superdelegate from Illinois. He was before he put his name in. Senator Hillary Clinton is a superdelegate from New York, and was before the race. Representative Dennis Kucinich is a superdelegate too. Howard Dean, now the Democratic National Committee chairman, is also a superdelegate. Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and former Vice President Al Gore, are all superdelegates. As you can see, all types of Democratic officeholders (Senators, Representatives, Governors, Mayors, D.N.C. persons, Presidents, and V.P.’s) are all in the running to be a superdelegate. And, given the amount of superdelegates, you have a good chance of being one if you make it to D.C..

Before the race gets to the voting, a lot of superdelegates have already officially pledged. For a list of who has officially spoken about who they will support, see 2008 Democratic Convention Watch – Announced Superdelegate List. All the people on that list have said that they intend to pledge to a certain candidate come the Convention. Similarly, they would have said that a long time ago – before the voting started, before everyone was announced, while the candidates were asking for advice. It might now be clear to you why some people run and why others don’t. It’s quite simple – a person runs if they think they can get ample support from superdelegates and win states in the primary race. Thus we see that the superdelegates have significant control in the process.

Thankfully though, there are always superdelegates who wait until their state has voted (and then pledge), or wait until the convention, or wait until a candidate already has a clear majority, and then pledges. People like Al Gore and Jimmy Carter are free to do this. For a list of unpledged superdelegates see 2008 Democratic Convention Watch – Unpledged Superdelegate List. You will see that Senator Chris Dodd and Senator Joe Biden are on that list – two former Democratic candidates from this race. The two lists change, and have the potential to change a lot. Howard Dean lost all his momentum and chance of winning in 2004 with the yell not just because of the ‘Screamin’ Dean’ incident, but because superdelagtes jumped off the Dean wagon. That symbolised more that the yell. As people drop out of the race, the superdelegates will shift around. Expect to see anyone pledged for Bill Richardson to support Obama. That’s one of my predictions.

It’s important to explain something else here too. For a while I’ve said that Florida and Michigan won’t count for the Democrats. What won’t count? The states will still vote for their candidate, but their superdelegates and delegates won’t count at the convention. Thus, while winning those states would be good for the electability debate, the delegates won’t help the candidate. It’s a win-lose situation, but the states lose on the whole. Their delegates don’t count, their voting isn’t really important, and the candidates stop campaigning there.

And finally we get to the glaringly obvious question: How do the superdelegates decide who they will pledge? How do these people decide when they don’t have to follow any voters? They chose on their own. And how do they come to a conclusion? By whoever has won them over in D.C.. Yes, it becomes a wine-and-dine procedure for the superdelegates as the candidates try to win over as many superdelegates as they can. This might include future funding for projects should the candidate be elected president, cabinet and senior positions, or help with campaigning come the election. Whatever it is, there are promises made. And a lot of them.

For Clinton, I suspect that Bill might have called in a few favours or made a few promises as well. What with being a former president and all. Political favours, I guess, is what the whole process of woo-ing superdelegates is based around. And political maneuvering. You will see that the Illinois superdelegates have pledges Obama, while the New York superdelegates have pledge Clinton. No surprises there.

Those delegates unpledged are either morally superior or fence-sitters, in that they probably haven’t taken any ‘deals’ from the candidates. Some of them don’t need to (Gore, Carter, etc.) while others might actually take their role seriously, or think that the process is undemocratic (and will eventually follow their state’s vote).

So there you have it. What a superdelegate is, what they do, how they do it, and how to get one. I hope that this post answers all your questions about superdelegates. If there are any more, please comment this post and I’ll be happy to answer them. Thanks for the post idea.



24 thoughts on “Superdelegates

  1. Good analysis, and thanks for the links. One thing, a large majority of the DNC members do not live in DC. They are certainly active in the party, and are very connected in DC, but are spread around the country. Also, don’t assume that Florida and Michigan won’t count. It will become a big issue if the election is not decided in the next couple of months.

  2. I just go on what’s been said by the DNC – that that Michigan’s and Florida’s delegates won’t count. It would be good if they did count, and even more interesting if it were so close that those states were needed to split winners from losers.

    And I didn’t mean to imply that the DNC members were all located in DC, merely that the ‘power’ of the party lies in DC, and connections between Representatives and Senators are made there. These connection travel with the party members afar, and then word spreads etc.

    Thanks for the feedback and the notes.

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  4. One thing I wasn’t sure about: if a substantial candidate (such as Edwards) drops out and endorses another candidate, how much of an obligation or expectation is there that all the superdelegates will follow? And what about the regular delegates?

  5. There is no obligation that superdelegates follow who a candidate endorses, but I believe that there is a degree of expectation. Superdelegate support can be a very fickle and volatile process – they are free to change their minds as often as they want.

    I suspect that changing, even once, does not endear them to he candidate that they leave.

    Because of their special status, they are generally percieved as people who jump on the bandwagons of candidates, rather than being ‘original’. This time around though they have a tough decision to make, as there are two wagons.

    Delegates, I believe, are redistributed if there is no endorsement. If there is, then they go to the endorsed.

    It’s interesting to note that I saw some calculations made about the delegate/superdelegate numbers, based on current polls, and what the numbers will be come the Democratc convention. It predicted that neither Obama or Clinton will have sufficient numbers for a majority if Edwards stays in the race till then.

    The calculations also predicted that Edwards, should he drop out at the convention and all his delegates and superdelegates go to Obama after endorsement (which should be expected, as there is no love between Edwards and Clinton), Obama would have one delegate more than the majority required.

    Of course, those sorts of figures don’t take into account all the ‘X-Factors’ that come into play. But, none-the-less, the longer Edwards stays in the race, the more interesting it becomes.

  6. Pledged delegates are awarded on two levels: The district level and the state level. They are allotted to states in approximate proportion to:

    – The proportion of votes the state in question gave the Democratic presidential nominee in the previous three presidential election, and;
    – The amount of votes (percentage-wise) that the the state contributes to the Electoral College.

    There are more rules, that can be found in the Delegate Selection Rules document, but these are the most important.

    Higher population districts will be worth more delegates than lower population. That’s how Obama won Nevada – he won a higher population district (and more delegates) alone, and split the rest with Clinton.

    The state delegates are awarded on the total statewide vote. Delegates are distributed among first, second, and sometimes third place, on both levels, because the Democrats don’t use the ‘winner takes all’ method that the Republicans do. It’s proportional to the votes that they received from the state.

    Thus, to sum up, it comes down to the votes that they receive and where they get them from.

  7. Thanks for the helpful information! I’ve been looking around the web for something I could actually understand about how this superdelegate process works.

    Question – how is “superdelegate” status awarded and by whom? Are certain political offices(ers) always superdelegates?

  8. The following people will be confirmed by the Secretary of the D.N.C. on the 1st of March as superdelegates:

    – “individuals recognized as members of the D.N.C. (as set forth in Article Three, Sections 2 and 3 of the Charter of the Democratic Party of the United States);

    – The Democratic President and the Democratic Vice President of the United States, if applicable;

    – All Democratic members of the United States House of Representatives and all Democratic members of the United States Senate;

    – The Democratic Governor (of the state in question), if applicable;

    – All former Democratic Presidents, all former Democratic Vice Presidents, all former Democratic Leaders of the U.S. Senate, all former Democratic Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives and Democratic Minority Leaders, as applicable, and all former Chairs of the Democratic National Committee.”

    That’s what it says on the Democratic Convention website. If you fit the criteria, then the Secretary of the D.N.C. awards you the title. And unless the D.N.C changes the rules, then anyone who fits this criteria is always a superdelegate unless “any such member has publicly expressed support for the election of, or has endorsed, a presidential candidate of another political party”. Basically, you can’t be a superdelegate if you’ve said you want the Republicans to win.

    I wonder where that left Zell Miller in 2004 …

  9. Thank you for the in-depth analysis and explanation of the superdelegate phenomenon. I must say, I’ve searched all over the place trying to understand the who, what, why, and “how the hell…” of it all. It is difficult to grasp for those of us less savvy in political jargon or electoral machinations, but nonetheless committed to understanding what is going on. I do agree with you, though; the process seems quite undemocratic when it all comes down to it. But then again, that was evidenced in the infamous 2000 elections. I suppose there is some semblance of sound reasoning for it all; but it looks a lot like unsavory attempts to maintain control of electoral outcomes–stategic alliances, odd bedfellows, political minefields.

    Thanks again for the explanation. I’ll be sure to link to your blog in any of my posts about the superdelegate omnipotence.

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  13. If the so called superdelegates can choose who they want to be the in the White House then what difference does it make who the average Amercian citizen VOTES for? It seems to me that this is very undemocratic. I have always in my life thought that my VOTE would count but I guess NOT. WAY TO GO AMERCIA. IF I DON’T COUNT WHY SHOULD I BOTHER.

  14. Because they only count for 1/5th of all delegates needed to be nominated. In any other election, it hasn’t been close enough for the superdelegates to decide. However, with things as they stand now, the superdelegates seem to be content with going to the candidate who wins the majority of pledged delegates. That means, the candidate who wins more delegates based on your vote, and people like you. Thus, you vote does count, and the votes are even more important at the moment. And the effort to vote is at an unprecedented high.

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  17. I deeply appreciate the information you have written. It all makes better sense now. The world is certainly “ALL” about contacts 🙂

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  19. I’m glad that someone else found the information interesting Jess. And I’m also pleased that someone else sees the process as mainly about contacts, and who knows who.

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  22. Question: someone told me recently that the entire reason for Superdelegates was to decide the nomination when there was a “tie” or something close to it like we are currently esperiencing.

    I disagreed with that explanation, saying that it may turn out that way, but that wasn’t the original intent. It was to give all those folks who you mentioned a “say” in the process, but not necessarily “the” say. Could you clairfy the original intent of the Superdelegate mechanism?

    Please explain and elaborate more fully. thank you.

  23. Ok, sorry it took so long to get back to this question, it got lost in the cue.

    In 1968, changes were made to the delegate selection process. These changes came about as an effort to take away from the party ‘elders’ the chance to pick delegates to the convention secretly. The rules changed to having delegates sent to the Democratic National Convention in proportion to each state’s population. These changes happened under the recommendations of the McGovern-Fraser Commission’s report in the same year.

    However, these changes were implemented when few states had primary elections, and when most were having caucuses, which was where the delegates were being secretly picked. As a result of the change, when the DNC thought that caucuses would continue to be the mainstay of electing, a lot of states went over to primary elections.

    An unintended consequence of this change from caucuses to primaries was that the state’s population quickly gained more control in the nominating process than the party ‘elders’. After some bad tickets were produced as a result of the majority of primary votes (like Jimmy Carter and, ironically enough, George McGovern) Governor of North Carolina Jim Hunt proposed the superdelegate idea that quickly came to fruition. Under Hunt’s plan, 30% of all delegates at the DNC would be superdelegates. By 1984, when the plan was implemented, it was 14%. Now, it’s 20%.

    Now, when 1984 came about and the superdelegates were implemented, it made for good timing. Walter Mondale only beat out Gary Hart by a few delegates due to the voting, and would have made for an intense floor fight at the DNC, except for the fact that he won all the superdelegates.

    In this situation, it saved face, prevented a long and drawn-out DNC, had the party preferred delegate nominated, and ended up going with the candidate who had the most pledged delegates on their side.

    So, I would say that the superdelegates were indeed created to give the superdelegates *a* say and not *the* say, as you rightly pointed out. We have never come to a junction where there is a nominee who is clearly the favourite among voters, in terms of votes and pledged delegates, and the superdelegates have over-turned that decision. If that were to occur, then that would be a misinterpretation and skewing of the superdelegate’s role. They are to ensure that the ‘best’ candidate gets onto the ticket (in terms of the nomination process – most votes, most delegates, etc.), and to avoid a messing and party-disgracing floor fight at the DNC.

    Hope that answers your question.

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