The Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently ended in a virtual draw with his rival Hillary Clinton in the primary elections in the state of Iowa, and even defeated her handily in the state of New Hampshire. Yet, commentators still put Clinton solidly in the lead within the race as a whole. To a large extent, this is because of the concept of superdelegates.
The purpose of the present sample essay provided by Ultius is to delve further into this concept and to draw out its implications, especially as they pertain to the current race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The essay, presented by Ultius and one of our expert freelance writers, will begin with an overview of the concept of superdelegates itself. Then, it will proceed to consider the ideological foundations for the concept. After this, the essay will discuss how superdelegates have affected the 2016 presidential race thus far. Finally, the essay will reflect on the potential significance of superdelegates as the race moves forward, especially as this pertains to Sanders’ presidential prospects relative to those of Clinton.
Concept of superdelegates
The concept of superdelegates can perhaps best be elucidated by contrasting it against the concept of normal delegates. In the presidential primaries race, every state of the United States has a certain number of delegates; when a candidate wins a state, he also wins that states delegates (or a proportion of them, depending on the local laws); and those delegates then vote for that candidate at the national party convention where an actual presidential candidate is selected.
Normal delegates must listen to the mandate of the voters within their states. Superdelegates, however, can act independently from the voters in their states, and make up their own minds about who they will support at the national party convention. In principle, this would mean that even if one candidate won the popular vote in most states, he may still not receive the presidential nomination if the superdelegates were to vote for a rival candidate at the national convention. Only the Democratic Party has superdelegates; all of the delegates within the Republican Party are just ordinary delegates.
As Norton has summarized the matter:
“There are hundreds of superdelegates, unelected party elites, who can sway the primary election, undermining the candidate democratically chosen by the party’s mass base” (paragraph 1).
It would be difficult to argue against the idea that the presence of superdelegates within the Democratic Party is fundamentally undemocratic in nature.
Indeed, this is in fact the whole point of superdelegates: they establish a kind of aristocratic check on the pure democracy of the primary election process. To an extent, the superdelegates possess a kind of veto power over what candidate will be selected to run in the main presidential election against his Republican rival in the primary elections; and they use this power in accordance with what they believe would be best for the Democratic Party as a whole, and not on the basis of the popular vote across the various states of the nation.
In practice, then, it would be fair to suggest that the superdelegates tend to rig the primary election process against outsider candidates and in favor of more centrist candidates drawn from established political circles and with established political histories. As Norton has indicated, this is not really slander; rather, leaders within the Democratic Party itself more or less acknowledge that this is exactly what superdelegates are meant to do, and the reason why they exist.
The fear is that the primary electorate will make bad decisions and choose to support outsider candidates whose interests may be opposed to the interests of the Democratic Party as a whole, or who may stand little chance of winning the general election against a Republican candidate. Superdelegates thus represent a basic mistrust of pure democracy and are reflective of the elite desire to impose a check against the power of the popular vote.
Ideological foundations behind superdelegates
Now, it is true that the concept of superdelegates is inherently undemocratic in nature. However, it is also worth acknowledging in this context that the Founding Fathers of the United States were also by and large undemocratic in the same way. As Graeber has made clear, for example, the Founding Fathers actually did not want to establish a purely democratic form of government, for they feared that this would merely degenerate into mob rule and anarchy.
What they did want to do is establish a republican form of government, in which the power of the people is channeled and checked as a result of different levels of power being distributed across a fairly large array of stakeholders. This is even evident in the structure of the legislative branch itself, with the more popular House of Representatives on the one hand and the more elite Senate on the other, to say nothing about the complex interplays between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government.
In this context, it could perhaps be suggested that the concept of superdelegates does find something of a basis in the natural political tradition of the United States, which has always been marked by just as much a skepticism regarding the power of the people as it has by the same regarding the power of the state. Again, superdelegates constitute an aristocratic check on the outcomes of the popular electoral process; but then, the Founding Fathers themselves may not have had much of a problem with the existence of such a check, insofar as establishing pure democracy was never their intention at all.
It is only in more recent times that the term “undemocratic” has come to have exclusively negative connotations. The Founding Fathers, on the other hand, were quite self-consciously undemocratic in at least some aspects of their vision for the nation.
On the other hand, it can also be suggested that the superdelegate system has become highly conducive to factionalism, which would surely have been recognized as a danger by the Founding Fathers themselves. Indeed, George Washington himself said as much, in his Farewell Address in the year 1796:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism” (paragraph 14).
The superdelegates, by essentially helping lock out grassroots challenges to the Democratic Party, assist with the consolidation of the two-party system as a whole; and it would seem that it is exactly this kind of entrenchment of political power that Washington warned the nation against, 220 years ago. In short, it is possible that the aristocratic check against pure democracy is now serving to undermine the republican system of government itself.
Effects on the 2016 race
In the Democratic primaries of 2016, Bernie Sanders essentially tied with Clinton in the state of Iowa, and soundly defeated her in the state of New Hampshire. However, if one looks at Bloomberg‘s delegate count charts, it is reported that Clinton has a solid lead over Sanders: she is reported as having 394 delegates, whereas Sanders only has 44 to his own name.
This discrepancy is the direct result of the fact that the superdelegates of the Democratic Party have overwhelmingly thrown their support behind Clinton and against Sanders. Sanders is a progressive senator who until very recently was an independent and thus not even a part of the Democratic Party; Clinton has served as Secretary of State within the Obama administration and is, of course, the wife of a previous Democratic president. It is thus quite predictable that the superdelegates, who generally represent the elite interests of the part, would line up behind Clinton as they have.
Essentially, this means that Clinton almost has a substantial head start on Sanders with respect to securing her party’s presidential nomination. This has outraged Sanders’ supporters—which is also predictable, given that the entire message of Sanders’ campaign consists of the simple point that the structure of Washington fails to work for the common people. The bias of superdelegates toward Clinton could then be almost read as a piece of hard evidence in support of this thesis. As Strauss has indicated:
“Pro-Sanders threads on Reddit have been burning up with calls for action, with some supporters even reaching out to superdelegates . . . Progressive groups are also taking a stand: There are currently two petition campaigns designed to urge superdelegates to reflect the popular vote, rather than the sentiment of party elites” (paragraph 3).
An important point is that the superdelegates, independent as they are, could always change their minds before the national convention and decide to support Sanders instead of Clinton. Engendering such a conversion could well become an important part of Sanders’ campaign strategy over the coming months.
Potential future significance of superdelegates
It is important to bear in mind that the influence of superdelegates, while substantial, is nevertheless limited. Silver has summarized the matter nicely:
“Superdelegates are mathematically relevant when a candidate has 41.2 percent to 58.8 percent of elected delegates. Below that range, a candidate couldn’t win a first-ballot majority even with the votes of every superdelegate; above that range, the superdelegates’ help wouldn’t be necessary to clinch the nomination” (paragraph 7).
In other words, if Sanders were to win (say) 60 percent of all ordinary delegates, then he would be able to take the Democratic presidential nomination without the help of even one single superdelegate. The superdelegates thus cannot override a popular mandate, if that mandate is strong enough. They can only tip the scales in the event that the race is a close one. (Since the time of this article, Hillary Clinton secured the democratic nomination, but lost the general election to Donald Trump.)
Nevertheless, the mathematics described above nevertheless does mean that it would be possible for Sanders to win the popular vote but nevertheless lose the presidential nomination. If such a thing were to happen, it would likely set off a firestorm within the Democratic Party and its electorate. It is thus very unlikely that the superdelegates would actually use their power in this way. As Dayden has put it:
“It seems unthinkable that superdelegates would overturn the popular will of Sanders falls just short of the delegates he needs to secure the nomination. This would demoralize Sanders supporters and throw the party into disarray, virtually ensuring a big loss in the general election” (paragraph 12).
In short, although the superdelegates could overturn the popular will of the Democratic electorate, this would be strategically tantamount to suicide. This means that if Sanders does end up scoring decisive victories at the level of the popular vote, then superdelegates may in fact begin supporting him and thereby validating the popular will. Naturally, this would be very bad news for Clinton.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of the concept of superdelegates and its potential implications for the current race for the Democratic presidential nomination. A key point that has emerged here is that superdelegates are meant to establish an elite check against the popular will, and that they actually could decide the nomination if the race turns out to be close enough. However, to actually override the popular will would be an extraordinary move, and the superdelegates will in all likelihood refrain from doing it.
Bloomberg. “Who’s Winning the Presidential Delegate Count?” Author, 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. .
Dayden, David. “Could Superdelegates Really Stop Bernie Sanders?” New Republic. 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. .
Graeber, David. The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013. Print.
Norton, Ben. “Un-Democratic Party.” Salon. 13 Feb. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. .
Silver, Nate. “Superdelegates May Not Save Hillary Clinton.” FiveThirtyEight. 12 Feb. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. .
Strauss, Daniel. “Sanders Supporters Revolt against Superdelegates.” Politico. 14 Feb. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. .
Washington, George. “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796.” The Avalon Project. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. .