Superdelegates and Their Purpose in the Democratic Party

Why Superdelegates Are Important in Presidential Politics

The term superdelegate is used to describe delegates to the Democratic National Convention who are not elected by primary voters but automatically given a voice in the presidential nomination process because of their position in the party. Republicans have superdelegates, too, but they function differently and are less influential.

Superdelegates in the Democratic Party are members of Congress, former presidents including Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, former vice presidents, and top officials in the Democratic National Committee. The other important thing to note about superdelegates, and the thing the makes superdelegates important in presidential politics, is that they are autonomous.

That means superdelegates can vote for any candidate they want to at the Democratic National Convention held every four years to select a nominee. Superdelegates are not bound by the popular vote in their states or congressional districts.

At the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, there will a total of 2,382 delegates. Of them, 712 — or nearly a third — are superdelegates. Despite a large number of superdelegates assigned to the conventions, these anointed delegates have rarely played a significant role in influencing the outcome of the nomination process. Their influence would be key, however, should there be a brokered convention.

Nonetheless, the Democratic Party's use of superdelegates has been the subject of criticism over the years from those who believe it's undemocratic and strips power from average voters.

"The whole deal stinks. It's wrong, unfair and undemocratic. The central element of democracy is elections. Why, oh why, should the supposed 'party of the people' reserve nearly one-thirds of their delegates for a select group of individuals who don't have to stand for election?" political analyst Mark Plotkin wrote in The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C., in 2016.

So why do superdelegates exist? And why did the system come into being? And how do they work?

Here's a look. 

How the Delegate System Works

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Delegates are people who attend a political party national convention and who elect the party's presidential nominee. Some states select delegates during a presidential primary and others during caucuses; some states also have a state convention where national convention delegates are selected.

Some delegates represent state congressional districts; some are "at large" and represent the entire state. 

How Republican Superdelegates Work

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. Getty Images News

Yes, Republicans have superdelegates, too. But they function much differently than the Democratic Party superdelegates. Republican superdelegates are not elected by voters, either, but are members of the Republican National Committee.

The three Republican National Committee members from each state are considered superdelegates, but they have been asked by the party to vote for the candidate who won their states. That's the biggest different between Republican and Democratic superdelegates.

Who Are the Democratic Superdelegates?

Al Gore
Former vice presidential nominee Al Gore. Andy Kropa/Getty Images Entertainment

Superdelegates include the following:

  • Elected members of the Democratic National Committee
  • Democratic governors
  • Democratic U.S. Senators and Representatives 
  • Distinguished party leaders including current and former presidents and vice presidents; former Democratic leaders of the Senate and House; and former party chairmen
  • Unpledged "add-on's" chosen by the party

Rationale For Superdelegates

Bill and Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton has said she's considered the idea of choosing her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as a running mate. Alex Wong/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 had only 37.5 percent of the popular vote, and 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 interested 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.

In 2016, former President Bill Clinton is a superdelegate who will have a role at the convention at which his wife, former First Lady Hillary Clinton, could receive the presidential nomination. Leading into the convention, the superdelegates overwhelmingly were supporting Clinton over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described Democratic socialist.

Importance of Superdelegates

2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia
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The Democratic Party allocates delegates based on a state's presidential vote in the prior three elections and the number of electors. In addition, states that hold their primaries or caucuses later in the cycle receive bonus delegates.

If there is no clear winner after state primaries and caucuses, then the superdelegates — who are bound only by their consciences — will decide the nominee.