Following the primaries: What’s the deal with Superdelegates?


The results of the New Hampshire primaries last Monday saw Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders come out on top for their respective parties. Trump’s win has made him the leader on the Republican side with 17 delegates followed by Ted Cruz’s 11.

Sanders tops the table for the Democrats after winning 15 delegates in New Hampshire. He now leads in a 36-31 delegate count over Hillary Clinton.

However, a quick Google of, “how many delegates does Clinton have?”, gives you this result.

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 16.25.46
Photo source: Google

394? How has Clinton won all these extra delegates? The answer lies in the phenomenon known as “superdelegates”. I have briefly explained the role these delegates play in previous articles but my curiosity has driven me to investigate their role further.

The Democratic national convention will be attended by 4,763 delegates on 25 July in Philadelphia. The aim of the primary elections is for each candidate to win the majority vote of these delegates to continue to the national election in November. However, of these 4,763 delegates, 712 (or 15 per cent) are unpledged superdelegates. They can vote for whichever candidate they choose and are not tied to the popular vote from the primaries and caucuses. Therefore, it is plausible that a candidate could lose the popular vote but still become the nominated candidate for the Democratic party from winning superdelegate votes.

Seems quite undemocratic right?

So, who are these people and what makes them super?

The 712 superdelegates are made up of the most important people in the Democratic party including current and former presidents, party leaders, governors, senators, members of the House of Representatives, and members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). 

In the 1972 presidential election, George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in 49 states. This loss was a massive blow to the Democratic party who decided that they needed to implement an emergency system to avoid nominating inexperienced or radical candidates for election. In other words – they didn’t trust the public’s decision.

In 1982, the Hunt Commission (chaired by then-governor of North Carolina Jim Hunt) recommended that the DNC set aside a number of unpledged delegate seats for member of congress and other state party officials. These became known as superdelegates.

Will superdelegates make a difference in this year’s election?

The question about whether superdelegates will ultimately decide who continues in the presidential election in November cannot be answered at this moment. Although over 300 superdelegates have said that they will vote for Clinton, they are free to change their mind at any point before the national convention in July. Therefore, the collective results from the Google search and various news publications, who show Clinton with a distinct delegate advantage, are once again based on predictions.

This is similar to what happened in 2008. Clinton began her primary campaign leading Barack Obama with 154 superdelegate votes to 50. By the end of the primary season, Obama had overtaken Clinton’s superdelegate support by almost 2:1, with a number of these delegates switching their support from Clinton to Obama.

This year however, Clinton has began with a much larger margin. This means the battle will be tough for Sanders. To start with, Sanders only declared himself a Democrat in 2015. As Clinton is a long-standing member of the Democratic party it is only natural that she would have the support of party officials. Sanders is also a self-proclaimed socialist and his campaign prominently revolves around reforming corruption in politics – a thought which may scare the old fashioned Democrats.

Nobody likes statistics

Instead of boring you with loads of statistics and percentages, let me conclude by saying that for Sanders to be absolutely sure of winning the Democratic nomination – without any support from superdelegates – he must win over 58.8 per cent of the pledged delegate votes. If the results are closer than that – for example 52 per cent to 48 per cent in favour of Sanders – the support of two-thirds of superdelegates in favour of Clinton would mean that she would win the nomination. For a more detailed breakdown see Nate Silver’s excellent article.

If the superdelegates are presented with a chance to overrule the popular vote, the results for American democracy would be catastrophic and Bernie Sanders will be vindicated in his certainty that campaign politics are corrupt.


(Photo: nomad7674)





Leave a Reply