Super-delegates and super Tuesdays

Bernie Sanders’ strong showing in the Democratic primaries is remarkable because today’s primary system was set up specifically to prevent somebody like him from winning the nomination.

Bernie_Poster_Large_Web_Graphic_72dpiSuper-delegates are Democratic party and elected officials who automatically get a seat in the convention, but are un-pledged.  They have the power to tip the balance against any undesired upstart grass roots candidate.  About 15 percent of this year’s delegates will be super-delegates.

Super-Tuesday is a day early in the election year in which a large bloc of states, mainly Southern and Midwestern, hold primary elections on the same day.  The expected result is for the front-runner to lock in a lead before New Yorkers and Californians vote.

The super-delegate system was set up in 1982 and the first Super Tuesday was in 1984.  The avowed purpose, which was frankly stated at the time, was to prevent the nomination of another George McGovern, an anti-war, left-wing candidate who swept the primaries in 1972 but only carried Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in the general election.

mcgovernbd74cdee16334b204b22d6ece81699c2It’s almost forgotten now that 1972 was the first year that all delegates to Democratic or Republican national conventions were chosen in primary elections.  From 1832 to 1908, there were no presidential primaries, and presidential candidates were nominated at conventions, usually after many ballots.  From 1912 to 1968, some states held primaries, but the results were frequently disregarded.  The Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey in 1968 even though he did not win a single primary.

Things changed in 1972 when George McGovern was nominated against the virtually unanimous opposition of the Democratic Party establishment.  Under party rules of that year, there was guaranteed minimum representation of racial minorities, women and youth, but not of Democratic governors, senators and congressional representatives, many of whom failed to win election as delegates.

McGovern went down to ignominious defeat—which was partly, but probably not mainly, due to lack of support from Democratic regulars.   Moderate, business-friendly Democrats founded the Democratic Leadership Council to steer the part away from what he stood for.

I can see the argument for super-delegates, even though their existence works against what I want to happen this year.  A political party, like any other institution, needs some sort of continuing leadership to exist.  That’s why Senators have overlapping terms and Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.

The Democratic super-delegates this year consist of 434 Democratic national committee members, 132 Democratic members of the House of Representatives, 46 Democratic Senators, 21 Democratic governors and 20 “distinguished” political leaders, including ex-Presidents and Vice-Presents, former congressional leaders and former chairs of the Democratic national committee.  All of them were elected, either by Democrats or the general public, at some point.

_88534840_super_tuesday_results_maps_624_democratsI don’t see a good argument for Super Tuesday method of trying to influence the nomination by means of the primary election schedule.

The important role given to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries has often been criticized because these small states are not representative of the nation as a whole.  The advantage to an insurgent candidate is that he or she can campaign and win without having enormous amounts of money.  Jimmy Carter was relatively unknown when he won the Iowa caucuses in 1976.

In any case, the South Carolina primary, coming right after, would offset and balance Iowa and New Hampshire.

The purpose of a super Tuesday is not just to increase the influence of the South.  And, for that matter, given the influence of African Americans in Southern primaries, that is not necessarily a bad thing from the standpoint of  progressives and liberals—even though it works to the advantage of Hillary Clinton this year.

The main purpose of a super Tuesday is to determine a front-runner as quickly as possible so the party can wind up its internal contest and concentrate on the campaign against the other party.

To sweep the super Tuesday states, on the other hand, requires a strong and well-financed campaign already in place.  And loss of the super Tuesday states generally means a falling away of campaign contributions.

None of these things stopped Bernie Sanders.  Despite early setbacks, his support has grown stronger the longer he has been in the race, and the more people hear his message.  I think he has a fighting chance of winning, which I wouldn’t have thought a year ago or even six months ago.

I think that he, or somebody like him, would have had an excellent chance of winning had they started work two or three years ago.

I think Sanders’ accomplishment, win or lose, is to have broken the ice for a progressive candidate.  He has shown that a candidate can win based on popular support alone, without being vetted by the big-money contributors.

Ronald Reagan, running against the incumbent Gerald Ford, was defeated for the Republican nomination in 1976, but he prepared the way for his victory in 1980.  I think Bernie Sanders, if he loses, may well have prepared the way for a progressive nominee in 2020.


Winners by county: Cllinton, gold; Sanders, green

Source: Wikipedia.


Superdelegate on Wikipedia.

List of Democratic Party super-delegates, 2016, on Wikipedia.

What are superdelegates? by Josh Clark for How Stuff Works.

Why is Super Tuesday so super? by Josh Clark for How Stuff Works.

A brief history of the Super Tuesday primaries by the staff of the National Constitution Center.

Super Tuesday: What Makes It So Super? by Talal al-Khatib for Discovery News.

Detailed Maps of Where Trump, Cruz, Clinton and Sanders Have Won in the New York Times.

Democratic Party presidential primaries, 2016 on Wikipedia.  The latest and best maps.


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2 Responses to “Super-delegates and super Tuesdays”

  1. peteybee Says:

    Hi Phil,

    Thanks for the very educational history on the origins of the superdelegate system, McGovern, etc.

    I took a quick look at the Dem. party bylaws (Article 3) to see how DNC membership is determined. Made my head spin. But if I understood correctly, may well not have, then, contrary to what the wikipedia suggests, members of the DNC aren’t all elected office holders. They are in large part selected by the DNC and state committees, with a sprinkling of DNC memberships awarded to other Democratic organizations (e.g., chairperson of Democratic Attorneys General Organization).

    There are good rules for DNC membership as well, such as stipulating an equal number of men and women, specifically prohibiting all kinds of discrimination, an affirmative action policy, requiring that meetings are open to the public and votes are not secret.

    Certainly I don’t expect a political party to set up a process where it would end up nominating a candidate who does not represent whatever the party is supposed to represent.

    I would say though, after reading the Democratic Party Credo (Art. 9, section 17, very inspirational!), that at the very least, I have a hard time believing that those stated principles are still driving the politics of the party — which is the basic criticism of the Sanders campaign. And it looks like the nominating process, in particular superdelegates, are there as a tool to stifle debate about this, rather than being open to it.

    Which goes back to the McGovern experience I suppose. Does the party nominate a candidate that best represents its voters or principles? What if that candidate cannot win, how far should they compromise on representing voters/principles?

    for reference:
    [ via ]


  2. S Brennan Says:

    “Certainly I don’t expect a political party to set up a process where it would end up nominating a candidate who does not represent whatever the party is supposed to represent.”

    Like FDR? Or later, Bill Clinton? Both men reversed the previous party policy, one created the New Deal, the other helped right wing Democrats tear it down.


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