How Superdelegates Work

The Role of the Party Elite in Presidential Elections

2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia
A delegate expresses support for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Benjamin Lowy / Getty Images

Superdelegates are elite, senior members of each major political party, the Republicans and the Democrats, who help determine the presidential nominees every four years. They can, but usually don't, play important roles in how presidents are elected in the United States, particularly in the careful delegate calculus during the primary process.

Not all superdelegates are created equal, however. Some have more power than others. The key distinction between superdelegates is autonomy, which is determined by party. In the Democratic Party, superdelegates are allowed to side with any candidate they want at the national conventions. In the Republican Party, superdelegates are required to give their votes to the candidates who won primaries in their home states.

So, why do superdelegates exist? And why did the system come into being? And how do they work? Here's a look.

Regular Delegates

Delegates cheer speakers at the Republican Convention
Delegates cheer speakers at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images

Delegates, as opposed to superdelegates, are the people who attend their parties' national conventions to decide the presidential nominee. Some states select delegates during a presidential primary and others do so during caucuses. Some states also have a state convention, during which national convention delegates are selected. Some delegates represent state congressional districts; some are "at large" and represent the entire state.

Superdelegates

Former President Bill Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton.

Mathias Kniepeiss / Getty Images News

Superdelegates are the senior-most members of each political party, those who serve at the national level. In the Democratic Party, though, superdelegates also include those who have been elected to higher office: governor, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives. Even former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter serve as superdelegates for the Democratic Party.

In the GOP, though, superdelegates are members of the Republican National Committee. There are three Republican National Committee members from each state, and they serve as superdelegates at presidential nominating conventions every four years. Republican superdelegates must vote for the candidate who won their state primary.

Why Superdelegates Exist

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks on the final night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images News

The Democratic Party established the superdelegate system partly in response to the nomination of George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. The nominations were unpopular among the party elite because McGovern took only one state and the District of Columbia and had only 37.5% of the popular vote, while Carter was seen as too inexperienced.

So, the party created superdelegates in 1984 as a way to prevent the future nominations of candidates considered by its elite members to be unelectable. Superdelegates are designed to act as a check on ideologically extreme or inexperienced candidates. They also give power to people who have a vested interest in party policies: elected leaders. Because the primary and caucus voters do not have to be active members of the party, the superdelegate system has been called a safety valve.

The Importance of Superdelegates

Texas delegates for Ted Cruz at the 2016 republican national convention
Delegates from Texas take part in the roll call in support of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

Superdelegates get a lot of attention in presidential election years, particularly if there is the potential for a brokered convention—which is unheard of in modern political history. The theory is that if none of the presidential candidates enter their party’s national convention having won enough delegates during the primaries and caucuses to secure the nomination, the superdelegates could step in and decide the race.

Critics worry about allowing the party elite to determine the nominee and not the rank-and-file committee members or voters of each state. The use of superdelegates has been described as undemocratic, but the reality is that superdelegates have not tipped a primary race in favor of a candidate in modern history.

Still, the Democratic National Committee took steps ahead of the 2020 presidential election to eliminate the potential for superdelegates to decide the nomination.

Rule Changes for 2020

Demonstrators protest the use of superdelegates by the Democratic party, August 23, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.
Demonstrators protest the use of superdelegates by the Democratic party, August 23, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

The friction over what was seen by many progressive Democrats as the undue influence of superdelegates boiled over in 2016 after many superdelegates announced their early support for Hillary Clinton, creating an impression among voters that the entire Democratic Party favored Clinton over her main challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Superdelegates at the 2020 convention were not allowed to vote on the first ballot because there was little doubt about who the party’s nominee would be. To win on the first ballot, a candidate must win the votes of the majority of pledged delegates secured during the primary and caucus process. In 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden received 2,739 delegates to become the Democratic Party's nominee. He needed 1,991 of the 3,979 total pledged delegates to win.

If more than one ballot had been needed to select the Democrats' 2020 nominee—which was not the case in 2020—the votes of the 771 superdelegates would have come into play. On those subsequent ballots, a majority (2,375.5, as some superdelegates have half votes) of the 4,750 regular delegates and superdelegates would have been needed to secure the nomination.

Updated by Robert Longley

View Article Sources
  1. What Are Superdelegates? (And, Yes, Republicans Have Them, Too).” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 26 July 2016.

  2. Weinger, Mackenzie. “George McGovern Dead at 90.” POLITICO, 21 Oct. 2012.

  3. 2020 Delegate Count | Democratic and Republican Primary Results.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 2 June 2020.

  4. Montellaro, Zach. “What's the Deal with a Contested Convention, Anyway?” POLITICO, POLITICO, 2 Mar. 2020.