Before Democrats start patting themselves on the back for curtailing the power of super delegates at the national convention to nominate a presidential candidate, consider this: If the Republicans had super delegates in 2016, Donald Trump might never have been nominated.
Super delegates are typically high-ranking party machers who until now have been able to vote for any candidate they want at the convention, which differs from most delegates, who are obliged to vote according to the results of the primary or state convention. Just 15% of total delegates, the super delegates usually include people who have worked for the party for decades, winning elections, campaigning for other candidates and raising money for the party and other candidates. Specifically, a super delegate has to be a member of the Democratic National Committee, a current governor, senator, congressional representative or a current or former president or vice president. In a real sense, they represent the continuing party establishment and the institutional memory of the party.
Super delegates became a hot issue in the 2016 primaries, with supporters of Bernie Sanders claiming they gave Hillary Clinton an unfair advantage. The facts on the ground say differently. Hillary won a majority of both voters and delegates selected in the primaries. Bernie did garner a number of super delegates. While awareness that most super delegates wanted Hillary certainly caused other elected officials to endorse her, the idea that super delegate support of Hillary translated to more primary votes is a big stretch. Voters listened—or didn’t listen—to Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Warren not because they were super delegates, but because of their past actions and reputation.
Under the new rules, super delegates will be unable to vote for candidates during the first round of voting. Only if there is a deadlocked convention will they be able to cast a ballot. The last time that happened was in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson was nominated on the third ballot. The super delegates will likely never have a chance to cast a vote.
I would imagine that moving forward, some if not most governors, congressional reps and DNC members will wangle a way to be a regular delegate so that they can have a vote at the convention. The net effect will be that fewer of the obscure party workers at the local and statewide level will have votes. If a state has to reserve a delegate spot for a senator, there will be one less to give to a grass roots organizer. Thus, in a perversely counterintuitive way, the move to be more democratic may end up making the conventions less democratic.
The larger concern, however, is that the super delegates could serve as a bulwark against an inappropriate candidate with widespread name recognition winning a bunch of primaries in an open field with well less than 50% of the vote in any state. For the sake of argument, let’s call that candidate Donald Trump. In such a situation, the super delegates could serve as the conscience of the party and block the nominee, either at the convention or before the late primaries. Remember that, until the candidates started dropping like flies, Trump was winning early primaries with well less than 40% of the vote. He used his enormous name recognition based on his reality TV show and the false myth he was a successful business mogul to squeeze out wins over a large, fragmented field. Super delegate support of another candidate would have changed the math and perhaps stopped the autocratic and erratic Trumpty-Dumpty.
But the super delegate remedy for someone who is either a demagogue or does not represent the basic values of the party was not available to the Republicans in 2016. The Republicans ended the super delegate option some years ago. In the early months of the 2016 campaign, Republican super delegates would most likely have gone for Jeb Bush, and if not Jeb, for Marco Rubio or John Kasich. Let’s be clear: as president, these candidates would likely have supported lowering taxes on the wealthy, nominating ultra-right judges, loosening gun control laws, cutting social welfare programs including healthcare, increasing the military budget and reducing government regulations. But they would not have walked away from the Iran and Paris agreements, not have started a trade war with both our allies and most important trading partner, not have instituted senseless and sadistic immigration policies. They would not have overtly appealed to white supremacists. They would not have hurt and embarrassed the country by spewing out stupidities and lies day after day. I doubt we would be talking about impeachment for corruption or traitorous conspiracy with a foreign power less than two years into the administration of any other Republican candidate for president.
Super delegates strengthen a political party because they express the continuing will of the party. Not having super delegates fragments the party and puts greater power in the hands of the individuals running for office. It helps to turn parties, which are supposed to express collective agreement on broad principles, into collections of individuals who conveniently use the party label to run for office. The growth in the use of primaries over the past 50 years has democratized the process of selecting a presidential candidate, with the super delegates serving as a “check-and-balance” that can prevent a party takeover by a single individual. Essentially ending the role of super delegates is another step in the long-time trend for personalities to become more important than party and party platform, a game fixed in favor of the wealthy.
We won’t miss super delegates as long as the Bernie’s and Hillary’s are running for office. But imagine a rightwing celebrity or even a Democrat in name only like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin with unlimited resources running against six or seven credible progressive Democrats in the primaries. Let’s say Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown Kamal Harris, Ron Weyden and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez split the vote, giving Manchin all the winner take-all primaries and the biggest share of votes in the other primaries. As progressive slowly drop out, Manchin gains strength and gains the backing of the essentially centrist and right-leaning mainstream media. The Dems could end up nominating someone who does not want universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage, a foreign policy based on creating partnerships not disputes, higher taxes on the wealthy and more spending on infrastructure and education or a regulatory regime that addresses global warming. All because the primary vote is fragmented and there are no super delegates to step in to assert the party’s values.
If it happened to the Republicans, it can happen to the Democrats, as well. In the name of a little more democracy at the convention, the Democrats may have perverted their broader democracy.