Election 2016: Super delegates in historical perspective

Oscar Winberg

US Capitol. Martin Falbisoner, Wikipedia Commons

US Capitol. Martin Falbisoner, Wikipedia Commons

One of the more common complaints about this year’s U.S. presidential nominating race has been that the process is “undemocratic.” While it has been made vocally by Donald Trump on the Republican side, it is most often made by Bernie Sanders supporters and is especially aimed at the so-called “super delegates” of the Democratic Party. After the Associated Press declared Hillary Clinton the presumptive nominee a day before the decisive primaries in California and New Jersey, the talk about a “rigged” process again surfaced. The complaints of an undemocratic nomination process are diverse, yet share the basic premise that unpledged delegates are seen as a modern equivalent of the notorious smoke-filled rooms of conventions past, undemocratically concentrating power to “party elites” over the will of the people. Historically, however, this premise is not only complicated but false.

The current delegate system of the Democratic Party was developed in the early 1980s as a reaction to the unexpected consequences of the McGovern-Fraser reforms of the late 1960s. Prior to the reforms, the nomination was decided at the national convention by delegates selected primarily at state conventions. Selection of delegates through primaries was rare, and seldom binding. Instead, primaries were viewed as beauty pageants, a chance for a flawed candidate to show strength among the electorate. The most notable example of this is John F. Kennedy in 1960, who won the primary in solidly Protestant West Virginia, thereby proving his appeal outside of the Catholic-heavy urban North. The existing process proved unable to withstand the tumult of 1968, a year that saw anti-war candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy duke it out in the primaries before Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was given the nomination at the infamous convention in Chicago. The McGovern-Fraser reforms were meant to shift power from the party elites who handed Humphrey the nomination in 1968 to the electorate. The delegates to the national convention were to be chosen primarily in primaries and caucuses, and bound to the results of these elections.

In 1972, under the new rules, George McGovern won the nomination over several more mainstream candidates and went on to a landslide loss to President Richard Nixon in the general election. Four years later, a former Democratic Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, sidelined a wide field of prominent candidates, going on to only narrowly defeat the troubled incumbent Gerald Ford. By the 1980s, the party accepted that the reforms had backfired. The idea of the reforms was to democratize the nomination process. The result, however, had been the success of marginal candidates with an activist organization over candidates with a broader appeal. McGovern in 1972 won only 25% of the popular vote, slightly behind Hubert Humphrey and only barely ahead of George Wallace. His understanding of the complex nominating process and the media narrative, however, guaranteed him an overwhelming delegate count. Carter also failed to win a majority of the primary votes in 1976 while securing a clear win in delegates. Both candidates mastered the new nomination system, while illustrating its failure to achieve democratizing objectives.

In the early 1980s, a commission led by Jim Hunt conceived of reserving some delegate positions for Democratic members of Congress and state party officials. The result was what has misleadingly become known as Super Delegates. In fact, there is nothing “super” about these unpledged delegates; they have the same vote as the delegates selected in primaries, caucuses, and state conventions. Though often portrayed as party elites, they are not the result of smoke filled rooms, party machines, or big city bosses. Instead, they have become unpledged delegates to the National Convention by being elected as Democratic senators, representatives, governors, party chairs, and even presidents (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama are among the roughly 700 unpledged delegates). The idea of the unpledged delegates is to serve the party as a whole, not just primary voters and caucus goers. For example, Maria Cantwell represents the state of Washington in the U.S. Senate, which makes her an unpledged delegate to the Democratic National Convention. She has pledged to support Hillary Clinton, but is now facing pressure from supporters of Bernie Sanders calling her support of Clinton, in the light of Sanders’ overwhelming caucus win, undemocratic. Considering she was re-elected in 2012 with a total of nearly 2 million votes, the demand that she bind herself to the will of the roughly 19 000 people who handed Sanders the victory in the caucus does not seem to serve democracy.

The main interest of the Democratic Party is nominating a candidate who can win the general election, which a priori means a candidate with the widest possible appeal among the electorate. Under the unpledged delegate rules, the party has been very successful in this; since 1992, the candidate nominated by the party has won a plurality of the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections. In the United States, political parties are comparatively weak organizations. In stark contrast to the political parties of Western Europe, parties in the United States have historically functioned primarily as election machines. Whatever strength the parties held were the result of assets in the form of fundraising capacity, organizational prowess, and volunteer lists. Modern technology has rendered many of these strengths irrelevant, exposing the parties as perhaps weaker than ever before. Today, with online fundraising, communication, and social media organization, a candidate could emerge from outside the party, appealing only to the most vocal and activist segments of the party base and secure a lead in a splintered field by winning pluralities of only 35%. A strong party, as envisioned by the Hunt commission, could withstand such an attempted hostile takeover. As Donald Trump has made abundantly clear, a weak party cannot endure such a populist assault. The Republican Party, which has no comparable system of unpledged delegates, has witnessed the tyranny of the plurality. Even as Donald Trump has emerged as the presumptive nominee, during the competitive primaries far more voters gave their vote to somebody other than the former reality television personality.

The nomination process, in the form of primaries and caucuses, is a time consuming and drawn out process. This may well explain why turnout in these elections is low; only the most engaged tend to take the time to vote. Yet a party is more than those attending caucuses and primaries in a presidential election cycle. It is both those engaged in the party on a deeper level and those only participating in the general election. This is why the reforms of the Hunt commission, introducing the unpledged delegates of today, were so vital. Unpledged delegates are not meant to allow the party to impose its will over the people, but to guarantee that an activist segment of the people do not dictate the outcome over the will of the party. The unpledged delegates exist to protect democracy and to avoid a George McGovern, a Jimmy Carter, or a Donald Trump.

Oscar Winberg is a PhD candidate in History at Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland.  He also hosts the monthly Campaign Context podcast, which provides historical context and insight into the 2016 U.S. elections. Follow him on twitter @WinbergOscar.

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