Teachable Instant: The Superpowers of Superdelegates

Do superdelegates subvert democracy? This brief activity includes quizzes, background and discussion on the controversy over superdelegates in the 2016 presidential election.   


Ask students to answer this true or false question about how presidential candidates are nominated by their parties:

Each state holds a primary or a caucus, and delegates to the national convention are awarded to candidates based on the vote counts.

Answer: The statement is true for the Republican Party, but not entirely true for the Democratic Party.  That’s because the Democratic Party has "superdelegates."


A quiz on superpowers

Super delegates have the following powers:

a) flight: the superdelegates have the power to flit around from one candidate to another at will.

b) mind-reading:  they can read the minds of the citizens of their states who may not have voted

c) invisibility: the superdelegates lurk unseen in the political process.

d) strength: their immense strength comes from their numbers - one-sixth of the delegates to the convention.

e) invulnerability: the superdelegates are accountable to no one.

f) energy conversion: by announcing their choice early in the campaign the superdelegates have the power to maximize (or minimize) the momentum of candidates' campaigns

g) all of the above

Answer:  g), at least according to critics of the superdelegate system.



What are superdelegates? 

Read or explain the following.

On July 25-28, 2016, some 4,765 delegates will gather in Philadelphia to decide the nominee of the Democratic Party. (These numbers vary slightly according to different sources.) 4,051 of the delegates are chosen by voters in the primaries and caucuses held in each state from February to June.  In the Democratic primaries, these delegates are apportioned according to the votes cast (with any candidate receiving at least 15% getting some delegates). Delegates chosen by voters are pledged to vote for their candidate at the convention.

But what about the other 717 delegates? These are the superdelegates who are chosen by the party to represent the Democratic "establishment." They include:

  • all Democratic governors
  • all Democratic senators
  • all Democratic representatives
  • 20 past presidents and other distinguished leaders
  • 437 members of the Democratic National Committee (the governing body of the Democratic Party). These include state party officials, leaders of party-affiliated organizations and at least a dozen corporate lobbyists

The superdelegates can vote for anyone they choose.

While critics have pointed to the problems with superdelegates (including their unaccountability), others defend them as a way to ensure that party leaders have a place at the convention, while still leaving room for grassroots party activists to be elected as delegates.


Superdelegate math quiz

1. There will be 4,765 delegates to the  Democratic Convention. A majority is needed to win the nomination. How many delegates are needed to win the nomination?

a) 4763
b) 4762
c) 2383
d) 2500 (plus all the delegates from Florida)

Answer: c), 2383

2. There are 717 superdelegates. What percentage of the delegates needed to win do the superdelegates represent (if they all voted for the same candidate)?

a) 16.5%
b) 50%
c) .05%
d) 30%
e) not enough information to determine

Answer: d), 30%




Ask students to read the information below, aloud or silently.

Where do superdelegates come from? And what impact will they have in 2016?

The precise formula for choosing the delegates to both the Democratic and Republican conventions has evolved over the years. The system gets tweaked based on the Party's perception of whether there is too much or too little control given to elected Democrats. 

After the chaotic convention of 1968, in which Hubert Humphrey won the nomination without having entered a single primary, the rules were changed so that delegates were chosen in an open process. Whereas most states had previously chosen delegates in state conventions composed of party insiders, the reforms led to most states choosing delegates in primaries--giving voters the power to largely determine the party’s candidates.

In 1972 however, an anti-Vietnam War candidate not favored by the party establishment, George McGovern, won the nomination, but lost badly in the general election.

This defeat and the messy convention of 1980 led to the invention of  the superdelegate. The idea was that allowing party stalwarts to serve as unpledged superdelegates would make it more likely that in each election, the candidate perceived to be most electable  would gain the nomination and less likely that an outsider would be the party's nominee.

Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz explained the superdelegate system, in an interview with CNN:

Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists [to be convention delegates]. We as a Democratic Party ... want to give every opportunity to grassroots activists and diverse, committed Democrats to be able to participate, attend, and be a delegate at the convention. And so we separate out those unpledged delegates to make sure that there isn’t competition between them.

The presence of over 700 delegates unelected by voters could, especially in the event of a closely contested race,  deny the nomination to the candidate with the majority of the popular vote in the primaries or even a majority of pledged delegates in the convention. Because this aspect of the nomination process is undemocratic and seems to favor party insiders,  many commentators have called for the elimination of the superdelegates.  One organization, Democracy for America, is circulating a petition begun by Robert Reich to ask superdelegates to vote according to the wishes of their state's voters.

"I think superdelegates should pledge to support the winner of the popular vote for the Democratic nomination, whoever that may be."
- Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor

The current race has moved supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to question the role of the superdelegates. Sanders’ opponent, Hillary Clinton, has a 45-to-1 superdelegate advantage over Sanders. Many people were surprised to learn that although Sanders won the nation's first primary, in New Hampshire, with over 60% of the vote, Hillary Clinton had more delegates from New Hampshire than Sanders, because she had the support of superdelegates.

Clinton has the support of superdelegates in part because she has deep roots in the Democratic Party. Sanders, on the other hand, has long described himself not as a Democrat, but as an independent or democratic socialist - though he has generally voted with Democrats as a member of the House and the Senate.


For Discussion

  1. Agree or disagree?  The Democratic National Committee can set up any rules it wants because it's their party.
  2. Should superdelegates pledge support for whoever wins the popular vote? Why or why not?
  3. Should superdelegates be eliminated? Why or why not? What negative consequences might result from this?
  4. Should the Democratic National Committee be neutral in the race for the nomination?



Extension Activity:

Ask students what they think would have happened if Bernie Sanders had run as an independent.  What do they think would have been the pros and cons of such a strategy?

Then ask them to research the history of third-party candidacies over the past 50 years, and conduct a follow-up discussion about their findings.