Guide To Superdelegates In 2020

Delegates and superdelegates determine who the nominees for president are but they are supposed to vote based on the will of the people. Find out who they are and what they do.
Hillary Clinton Speech at Democratic National Convention - July 28, 2016. (Maggie Hallahan)

Hillary Clinton Speech at Democratic National Convention – July 28, 2016. (Maggie Hallahan)

Many Americans are under the impression that presidential nominees are decided by primary and caucus voters in the states, but in reality, it is delegates and superdelegates that decide who the nominees for president will be.

In the 2016 election, the role of superdelegates took center stage as then-presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battled for the nomination of the Democratic party to compete against the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. In this article, Rantt explores what superdelegates are, their origins, the controversies surrounding them, and what role they’ll play in the upcoming election.

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What is a superdelegate?

Superdelegates are “unpledged” or untethered delegates comprised of party bigwigs and long-time operators within the Democratic National Convention (DNC). They are high office holders, like governors, senators, representatives, and even presidents, and can vote for whomever they choose. They’re a sort of “free radical” in the sense that they are free to switch sides and vote in a radical way but haven’t historically done so.

Ironically, superdelegates are meant to prevent dangerous populists, unelectable or inexperienced candidates from making it to the national stage and serve as a check on extreme candidates—like a “safety valve”. Party leadership’s reasoning was that primary and caucus voters, who don’t always have to be active members in the party and thus might not have a vested interest in party values, could usurp the process in a grassroots or populist takeover. So superdelegates are meant to restore the balance of power to the people with a vested interest in the party and its policies: the elected leaders.

Republicans have their own form of superdelegates but their role in the nominating process has been, and is, currently limited. Republican National Committee (RNC) superdelegates are comprised of each state’s three RNC chairs and basically vote for whoever carries their state in the primaries or caucuses. There are far fewer of RNC superdelegates than Democrat superdelegates.

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What’s the history of superdelegates?

In 1972, the Democrats got destroyed in the presidential election. George McGovern lost the popular by 23 points and carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia (Democrats weren’t hurt so bad in the house and senate after that election). Eight years later, Jimmy Carter hardly did any better, carrying only six states. After these two losses, Democratic leadership tapped James B. Hunt, the governor of North Carolina at the time, to chair the DNC and with the leadership, he formed the Commission on Presidential Nominations (CPN) in 1982.

Party leadership felt that the nominating process had become too chaotic due to reforms made at the 1968 convention that gave voters sole power to choose presidential candidates. Coming out of CPN, and heading into the 1984 DNC, Hunt and the party leadership introduced “superdelegates” into the nominating equation.

Superdelegates vs delegates

The most noticeable and important distinction between [pledged] delegates and superdelegates is how they vote. The latter is more like queens on a chessboard and can hypothetically vote whichever way they want. They can switch sides or abandon a candidate who carries the majority of the regular delegates if, for example, a scandal breaks out and that candidate is no longer seen as a viable option. Delegates, on the other hand, must support the will of primary and caucus voters in their respective states.

The other main difference is who the delegates are. Superdelegates are the party establishment and their selection is automatic. Delegates, however, are typically party officials at the state and local level and chosen by voters during primaries and caucuses.

How many superdelegates are there?

Within the DNC, superdelegates make up roughly 15% of the total delegation. For the 2016 election, there were 4763 total delegates, with 712 of them falling into the superdelegate category. In 2020, there will be 3768 pledged delegates and 764 superdelegates. These numbers are subject to change due to resignations, accessions, selections as a pledged candidate, and even death.

For both 2016 and the upcoming 2020 election, Republicans will be sending 2472 delegates to the convention. Roughly 7% of these are superdelegates, 168 in total.

How does superdelegate voting work?

Since their inception in 1984, and leading up to the 2016 election, superdelegates were allowed to throw their support behind the candidate of their choice, regardless of how their state voted in the primary or caucus. They could pledge to one candidate but then switch sides leading up to the first (there hasn’t been need of a second ballot measure since the 1950’s) ballot measure at the convention, at which point their vote would be cast. Under the new rules, though, superdelegates are no longer allowed to cast votes in the first ballot measure at the convention. Now, they can only cast votes when a candidate has a clear majority of pledged delegates unless there’s a contested convention. In which case, all the delegates would be freed up to cast votes for their candidate of choice in a second ballot measure.

Can superdelegates vote for whoever they want?

Superdelegates can technically vote for whomever they want and potentially change their minds as many times as they want leading up to a convention, but their votes, like those of pledged delegates, don’t matter until the convention. Furthermore, if a candidate appears to have a majority of the pledged delegates, but voters seem to overwhelmingly support a different candidate, superdelegates could flip to the candidate voters want. They could also decide to vote against a popular candidate that party leadership finds problematic. Superdelegates’ free range, though, was limited ahead of the 2020 convention (explained below).

It’s also important to point out that superdelegates have never chosen a nominee who didn’t ultimately get a majority of the pledged delegate vote. There are certain checks on superdelegates, as well. Many of them are elected officials and must then return to their states and cities and face their voters.

Republican delegates cast votes depending on the rules of their state. Some states give a percentage of the delegate vote to each candidate depending what percentage of the vote they received. Other states have winner takes all rules so that even if one candidate manages to secure 49% of the vote, they get 0% of the delegates. In Ohio, for example, a candidate who gets a majority of the vote gets all the delegates. In Missouri, if no one candidate gets at least 50% of the vote, the majority holder gets 12 delegates and then 5 delegates each go to the winner of the state’s 8 congressional districts. During the last election, Trump won the majority and 5 of the congressional districts so received 37 delegates.

Superdelegates to the RNC are technically “unbound” but due to rule changes after the 2012 election, they become pledged delegates once the convention starts.

How does someone become a superdelegate?

The process of becoming a superdelegate to the DNC is pretty straight forward and you can find it in the official rule book. Essentially, if you are a democratic party leader, or were, you’re guaranteed consideration. For example:

  • Current and former presidents and vice presidents
  • Current and former members of the House of Representatives and Senate
  • Governors (where applicable)
  • Former Speakers of the House
  • Former majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate
  • Any member of the DNC, including the chair and vice chair of each state’s Democratic Party, some 200 other elected through state primaries and caucuses
  • And, any former DNC chair

Although Republicans don’t have superdelegates in the same way that Democrats do, they nonetheless technically exist. They are selected at the state level by one of four ways:

  1. Getting elected on the primary ballot
  2. Getting your state’s elected Republican leadership to choose you as a delegate
  3. Receiving a majority of the votes at either a state Republican convention or at a convention in a local congressional district
  4. Becoming your state’s party chair or getting elected as 1 of 2 of its representatives to the RNC

Who are some famous superdelegates?

Some well-known superdelegates in the Democratic Party have been Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama, who coincidentally voted for themselves during the 2008 and 2016 election, respectively. Al Franken was a superdelegate and voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Other notable superdelegates have been Bill Clinton, his former vice president Al Gore, and Howard Dean.

What’s the superdelegate breakdown of the democratic party in 2020?

There will be over 700 superdelegates in 2020, and they will likely be comprised of the same longtime party insiders and elites, but we don’t yet know who they are. Perhaps that is because of the change in their roles for the upcoming election.

What was the 2016 controversy of superdelegates about?

“No. The primary was not rigged,” former interim DNC Chair, Donna Brazille said after the 2016 DNC. Controversy erupted when Sanders supporters felt that then-candidate Bernie Sanders was getting cheated out of the nomination process ahead of the convention that year because Hillary Clinton had secured the support of hundreds of superdelegates. Even in states that Sanders won by wide margins, it seemed like superdelegates were giving Clinton an unfair advantage. During the primaries, for example, Sanders had trounced Clinton in New Hampshire by a 23 point margin, earning him 15 delegates to Clinton’s 9, but due to superdelegates, Clinton walked out of that primary with 15 delegates (Sanders ultimately received 16 delegates).

In fact, almost 400 superdelegates had pledged to Clinton before the convention, which gave the false impression of a stacked deck and ruined the integrity of the whole process in the eyes of Sanders supporters. Ultimately, Clinton managed to secure an overwhelming majority of the pledged delegates, which made the greater share of superdelegates going to her meaningless. However, many have argued that because of their power and influence, the mere presence superdelegates can unfairly tip the scales and shape voter perception.

It is important, however, to make clear that Superdelegates didn’t cost Sanders the nomination. Clinton won 3.7 million more votes than Bernie from the Democratic primary voters.

Despite the controversy surrounding superdelegates, and whether or not the Democratic party should keep them, which they are, many advocacy groups and establishment members continue to defend their existence. Some 200 superdelegates are made up of representatives from the Congressional Black Caucus, LGBTQ groups, and women. All groups that might not get that representation to demographics.

How was the superdelegate system reformed after the 2016 primary?

After the 2016 election, the DNC formed a Unity Reform Commission that decided to strip superdelegates of some of their power. The concern raised by voters, and that of many people before the controversy, was that superdelegates could unfairly tip the scales in favor of a candidate, or potentially vote against the will of the voters even if a candidate won 50+1 percent of the delegates (both Obama and Clinton secured their nominations with narrow margins, sparking fear that superdelegates could hypothetically go against the will of the people). To be clear, the latter didn’t happen in 2016–has never happened, actually.

The biggest change in the nominating process is that superdelegates are no longer allowed to cast their votes on the first ballot measure at the convention, unless a candidate has already secured the preset majority of pledged delegates during primaries and caucuses. If a candidate fails to secure a majority of those delegates, then in a second round of voting the superdelegates will come into play. This, however, has never happened.

There were also sweeping changes to primaries and caucuses made after the 2016 DNC to make them more transparent, fair, and inclusive.

The Rantt rundown

Since superdelegates descended on the nomination process, many have defended their existence as a check against populism or unfit candidates in the Democratic party. For voters, scholars, and party insiders, they’ve also been a potential bogeyman of an essentially undemocratic process. To this day, though, they’ve never upset the will of the voters, per se, but the spectre of scandal was enough to change system and strip party leaders of some of their power. That doesn’t mean they won’t have an influence over the whole process, though. Superdelegates are some of the biggest names in the Democratic party. Along with these changes and the, sweeping changes to primaries and caucuses, perhaps the will of the voters will, once again, be first and foremost.

Looking to learn more about the 2020 election? Check out our guide on Super Tuesday.

Elections // 2020 / Democratic Primary / Republican Primary / Superdelegates