One week after the Iowa Caucus, many of us believed that the worst of the delegate process was over, that the head-scratching arithmetic and archaic procedures were largely behind us, and that the nation’s first primary would at least resemble that representative democracy thing we’d signed up for. We could not have been more wrong.
On Tuesday, the Bernie Sanders campaign came away with a historic victory in New Hampshire, delivering the second-biggest route in the history of the state’s Democratic primary, and collecting 60% of the popular vote. In spite of this, Hillary Clinton will, in all likelihood, be leaving New Hampshire with more delegates than Bernie Sanders. As it stands, Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders by 350 total delegates, this despite the fact that Sanders has won 34 of the 66 delegates allotted in the first two contests.
How did this happen?
The answer is superdelegates. Also known as “fake delegates” or the “antithesis to democracy,” these individuals make up 20% of the total delegates required to secure a nomination, despite having no connection to the popular vote. They are composed of elected officials and distinguished party leaders, and they are automatically given a vote by the Democratic Party establishment. In 2008, each of these individuals had about as much clout as 10,000 ordinary voters. Of the 371 superdelegates that have pledged support to a democratic candidate, 355 are currently backing Clinton.
So that’s where these numbers are coming from, and why you’re seeing more and more headlines that look like this:
Now, whether or not Sanders really does have a superdelegate problem is up for some debate. Pastehas a pretty thorough explainer of why the Clinton-leaning superdelegates may ultimately prove meaningless — basically, if Sanders were to win the popular vote, the superdelegates currently supporting Clinton could potentially change their pledge in order to avoid alienating the base and risking lower voter turnout in the general election.
This could also not happen, as NPR’s Domenico Montanaro explains, “It’s their party—and they’ll pick the nominee they want. But Sanders hopes to overcome the elite with grass-roots energy. These numbers show just how much of a hole he starts in.”
So maybe the party establishment will let voters democratically elect their nominee, maybe they won’t. The more interesting question, for this publication at least, is why we even have these superdelegates in the first place.
Here’s the short answer: In 1982, DNC leadership decided that ordinary Americans were no good at choosing a viable candidate, so they decided to endow certain party elders with the superpower of massive political influence. As far as Supervillain origin stories go, it’s pretty lame.
For the longer answer, it’s necessary to go back a bit further.
The modern primary system was created in 1968, following a highly controversial national convention between then-vice president and pro-war candidate Hubert Humphrey and anti-war, populist favorite Eugene McCarthy.
While anti-Vietnam riots erupted outside in the streets of Chicago, delegates within the convention managed to defeat the so-called “peace plank,” securing Humphrey as the nominee. Humphrey would go on to lose the general election to one Richard M. Nixon. The whole thing was such a PR mess for the Democrats that party leaders soon agreed to give the people a more substantive role in the nomination process. Thus, the modern primary/caucus system was born.
While this newfangled political process was a win for the cause of democracy, it would prove to be a real stinker for the Democratic party over the next decade. With George McGovern and Jimmy Carter on the democratic tickets in 1972 and 1980 respectively, Republicans cruised to easy victory. The results for democrats weren’t just ugly, they were disastrous — McGovern won just one state, while Carter lost the electoral vote by 440 votes, forking over a combined 46 seats in the House and Senate along the way.
Panic set in among the leaders of the Democratic party, and many vowed to find a solution to prevent such future embarrassments. In 1981, the New York Times noted that calls for party reform “seemed infused with a desire to deny future nominations to political reincarnations of Jimmy Carter.” Democracy was nice in theory, but what if the ordinary public was just plain lousy at selecting a viable nominee?
And that’s where the superdelegates come in. In 1982, James B. Hunt formed a commission to explore how reforms to the delegate-process could “help us choose a nominee who can win and who, having won, can govern effectively.” The Hunt Commission subsequently recommended that the DNC set aside some delegate slots for members of Congress and other party leaders, effectively trimming the influence of the grassroots. The plan, which went into effect two years later, worked almost immediately, allowing Walter Mondale to earn the nomination in 1984 thanks to broad support from party stalwarts (Mondale, it’s worth noting, is one of the “distinguished party leaders” who have pledged support to Clinton.)
Since 1984, the influence of superdelegates has steadily increased, and now stands at approximately 20% of all delegates. But the beast hasn’t just expanded, it’s mutated. Somewhere along the line, the definition of a “distinguished party leader” became almost interchangeable with the definition of “massively powerful lobbyist.”
A quick scan of the superdelegates’ resumes (h/t Lee Fang) reveals this to be true: Jeff Berman, a former Keystone pipeline lobbyist, is currently a consultant on the Clinton campaign; Bill Shaheen, a former Co-Chair on Clinton’s 2008 campaign, is the founder of a law firm that lobbies for one of the largest opioid distributors in New Hampshire; Jill Alper and Minyon Moore, both close advisors and fundraisers for Clinton, were recently employed by Dewey Square Group, a lobbying firm that worked on behalf of health insurers to undermine Obamacare.
So if it seems like those with money and power are playing a different game entirely, that’s because they are. And if it feels like a populist movement that threatens these special interests is no match for the machinery of American politics, that’s because it isn’t. That our system works the way it does isn’t some accident of time or error of policy — this was the explicit purpose of the rules in the first place.
Here’s the New York Times, in 1984:
Democratic Party leaders say new rules adopted for this year’s convention have fulfilled their purpose and created a more stable and predictable nominating process that favors mainstream candidates and policies.