Superdelegates play super yet questionable role

Last modified: Saturday, February 27, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — Even if U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders were to win the popular vote here in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, as he did in New Hampshire, he may not capture the majority of the state’s 116 delegates.

That’s because 25 of those delegates are unpledged, or superdelegates, and many have publicly endorsed Hilary Clinton, bolstering her chances to capture the 2,383 delegates needed to win the Democratic presidential nomination, according to national tallies.

It is merely one scenario, but one that nags many voters who believe the superdelegate system has the potential to undermine the people’s vote and subvert the democratic process.

“I do think that superdelegates in almost all cases should follow the vote in their districts,” said Leo Maley of Amherst, who has volunteered for the Sanders campaign and is a member of the Progressive Democrats of America. “It should be the case that the will of the voter decides or at least strongly influences the actions of superdelegates. One would hope that would be the case.”

The role of superdelegates is a relatively modern one in the span of presidential election history, giving a group of party leaders decision-making leverage long after the polls have closed. Superdelegates are elected officials, members of Congress, Democratic National Committee members and distinguished party leaders.

An unofficial count of delegate support by the Associated Press has Clinton ahead approximately 505 to 71 delegates in advance of Super Tuesday, a gap largely attributed to her support among superdelegates.

There are 712 superdelegates going to the national convention in Philadelphia in July. They can support any candidate regardless of whether he or she carried the popular vote in their state. They also can change allegiances, and while most typically do not, it did happen when Clinton and President Obama were battling for superdelegate support late in the 2008 primary season, according to party experts and political observers.

“We don’t track pledges of our superdelegates because they’re uncommitted,” said Matt Fenlon, executive director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, when asked about the support among Massachusetts superdelegates for Sanders and Clinton. “They can switch at any time.”

Birth of superdelegates

The system of using superdelegates began in the early 1980s and grew out of the disastrous results of candidate George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, which caused rifts within the Democratic party.

The consensus was that party leadership needed a stronger voice in the nominating process amid concerns that citizen party activists could dominate the process and push the party’s choice in a direction that was perhaps too liberal or too extreme, according to Professor Donald C. Baumer, who teaches American politics and public policy at Smith College.

“It was basically a reaction to McGovern,” Baumer said. “The reasoning is so that people with experience and a commitment to the party have some voice in the process.”

Baumer said that while he is not particularly troubled by the superdelegate system — they represent 712, or 15 percent, of the 4,762 delegates to the national convention — it does seem too early in the process for so many superdelegates to back one candidate over another.

“I do think it’s somewhat prejudicial to the overall outcome for many of the superdelegates to make these commitments before Super Tuesday,” he said. “What we ought to be saying is, ‘Let’s wait and see what the voters say.’ ”

The progressive, grassroots this month launched a petition drive targeting superdelegates in nearly every state, demanding that voters, not “party insiders,” determine the Democratic nominee for president. The campaign comes after Political Action announced that it is tracking and targeting the Democratic Party’s 712 superdelegates and launching accountability campaigns focused on any superdelegates that argue that insiders rather than voters should choose the nominee.

Some Democratic voters say the thick of primary season is not the time to be debating the pros and cons of the superdelegate system as there is too much at stake in the election, including appointing a new Supreme Court justice.

“I don’t think you get rid of superdelegates in the middle of an election cycle,” said Northampton attorney Thomas Lesser, a Clinton campaign volunteer. But, he added, “I think it’s a fair question to ask as to how many superdelegates there should be, if any.”

In his view, Lesser said the concept of superdelegates exists to help determine who the Democratic candidate will be as early in the process as possible to give that candidate more time to campaign against his or her Republican counterpart.

“People have to understand that superdelegates are officials connected with the Democratic Party and Bernie Sanders has not run as a Democrat in the past,” he said.

What do Republicans do?

Republicans do not have a superdelegate system like the Democrats and its candidates must garner 1,237 of that party’s 2,340 delegates to win the nomination.

Joseph Tarantino of Northampton and chairman of the city’s Republican City Committee, said the anxiety experienced by Democrats regarding the superdelegate system is not lost on Republicans.

“I’ve never understood the whole purpose and it’s only to cause trouble when the people have spoken otherwise,” said Tarantino, who is trying to become a delegate to the Republican National Convention from Massachusetts. “If the superdelegates make the difference then the Democrats are going to tear themselves apart. Why not just let the people vote and decide instead of needing approval by overlords who know better? It’s an issue of great amusement to many Republicans.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at


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