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.
Super-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.
It’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.