Democrats vote to limit role of superdelegates in party nomination contests

A decade-long fight is resolved, at least for now.

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 23:  Demonstrators protest outside the Hyatt Hotel where the Democratic National Committee (DNC) were kicking off their summer meeting on August 23, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.   (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 23: Demonstrators protest outside the Hyatt Hotel where the Democratic National Committee (DNC) were kicking off their summer meeting on August 23, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Officials at the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting in Chicago voted to radically alter their party’s superdelegate system, which has been the source of controversy in two of the past three presidential election cycles.

Previously, these party elders had an outsize role in determining the Democratic party’s presidential nominee. Going forward, superdelegates will serve in a “break in case of emergency” capacity, playing a role in determining a nominee only in a very few scenarios.

As Buzzfeed’s Ruby Cramer reports:

Under the new system for choosing a Democratic nominee, in the first round of voting at the national convention, superdelegates will no longer be entitled to their own delegate to award to the candidate of their choosing. Around 700 people had superdelegate status in 2016. In the case of a contested convention and second round of voting — a historically unlikely possibility — superdelegates would again be allowed to cast a delegate vote.

In the Democratic party’s nominating process, one needs to claim the majority of 2,382 delegates to win the presidential nomination. In previous contests, most of these delegates have been won within the states’ primary systems, and apportioned according to the rules governing each state’s primary or caucus. However, a substantial number of the overall body of delegates (over 700 in 2016) have been superdelegates — in most cases elected officials, but whose ranks also include various Democratic party grandees.


These senior figures, unlike other delegates, are free to vote for whomever they wish in casting ballots for a presidential nominee, and their support often has been secured via lobbying and side deals — much to the chagrin of many party regulars.

The DNC’s new proposal would accord the superdelegates their determining power only in instances where the first round of voting on the convention failed to yield a nominee, a scenario of limited likelihood in the as the nominating process is currently practiced. This new role — as party brokers — essentially strikes a balance between the superdelegates’ symbolic place in their party’s hierarchy and the actual power with which they were vested — which has in recent years become the cause of considerable intra-party rancor.

Back in 2010, the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee took up the matter of the superdelegates after a nominating process that briefly threatened to put the superdelegates on the hook in determining whether the party would nominate Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.


Grievous strategic errors committed by the Clinton campaign had, for a time, left the superdelegates as the only force that could close the delegate gap between the two rivals, or prevent Obama from claiming the nomination outright.

That 2008 fiasco revealed something about the superdelegates with which the party struggled to contend. While many superdelegates cherish their outsize role in the nominating process, using their power to provide early endorsements and to form close associations with nominees, the vast bulk of superdelegates clearly prefer to remain in the background — enjoying the perks of superdelegatedom without actually having to be someone who sticks their neck out to actually decide the nominee.

And so, during the nominating season, a large number of superdelegates wait to officially make a decision, preferring to simply back the same nominee for whom Democratic voters evince support — either by signing on with the will of voters in the states to which they are tied, or by simply joining the overall delegate consensus as the state contests start to reveal which way the wind is blowing.

But in 2010, the party failed to resolve the matter completely, agreeing to slightly reduce the superdelegates power without, as many had hoped, scrapping the entire system. As Newsweek’s Colin Woodard reported at the time, here was the basic rationale behind the decision:

Why would the rules committee do such a thing? After all, the proposed reform would have allowed superdelegates to keep their convention seats and even to attend as nonvoting delegates if they couldn’t stomach the candidate they would have been assigned to represent. It ensured the active participation of party elites—whose engagement can be vital to the success of nominees and presidents alike—while guaranteeing that they could never mount a coup against the voters’ preferred candidate.

“People ask: isn’t it enough for folks to have floor privileges and a hotel room and not have an actual vote?” says rules-committee co-chair James Roosevelt Jr., a grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “The answer is: what you’re doing is creating two classes of delegates, people with the vote and people without the vote. Clearly, the people at the grassroots level should be the predominant voice. But if you don’t give elected officials a real voice, they are basically second-class citizens.”

Eight years later, these second-class citizens would get another turn in the barrel, repeating their role as symbolic conscripts in an internecine party conflict, this time between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt).


During that nominating fight, it was fairly common for surrogates of either candidate to publicly seek to extract demands of superdelegates — urging them to vote with the will of voters in one moment, demanding they perform their celebrated roles as free-thinkers the next, depending on when and whether it was convenient to argue either way.

Saturday’s decision will, at least for one election cycle, eliminate any worry that the nominating process will become similarly embroiled. But the reduction of the superdelegates’ power contains its own controversies. As Cramer points out, the superdelegate process allowed the Democratic party to elevate women, members of the LGBT community, and people of color in their midst. Some who supported retaining the superdelegate system fretted that eliminating it would strip these marginalized voices of vital representation.

It’s also likely that in the coming days, some will ruefully express regret that the presence of superdelegates is how a party avoids nominating someone like, say, Donald Trump — the theory being that had there been a coterie of Republican party elites similarly vested with this sort of power to alter the trajectory of a nomination, the reality-show mogul might have been kept from the presidential ballot.

This theory, of course, presumes that GOP superdelegates would behave differently than their Democratic counterparts, opting to intervene in the nominating process instead of sitting back and going with the will of voters.

It also makes some rather generous assumptions about Republican party elites having the level of conviction necessary to oppose an objectionable presidential candidate who’s nevertheless popular with voters. While it’s a pleasing sounding idea in theory, it has not been observed in nature in recent years.