Superdelegates Were Designed To Stop a Candidate Like Bernie

Of course the establishment candidates approve of superdelegates—these unelected electors were created precisely to protect the party elite.

Branko Marcetic February 21, 2020

The Democratic presidential primary debate on February 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Many moments in Wednesday’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate have already deserved­ly made head­lines: Eliz­a­beth Warren’s evis­cer­a­tion of Mike Bloomberg, the ongo­ing feud between Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders’ defense of social­ism, to name a few. Per­haps the most impor­tant came at the very end.

Those involved had deep doubts about the wisdom of opening up the nominating process to control by voters.

Asked whether the can­di­date who ends the pri­ma­ry sea­son hav­ing won the most del­e­gates should also win the nom­i­na­tion, all the can­di­dates bar Sanders — who now looks poised to win Neva­da and the states beyond—demurred, insist­ing that the par­ty fol­low the rules” and the process” set up.

Sanders was the sole out­lier. Well, the process includes 500 superdel­e­gates on the sec­ond bal­lot,” he respond­ed. So I think that the will of the peo­ple should pre­vail, yes.” Sanders was refer­ring to the cur­rent nom­i­nat­ing rules, which stip­u­late that if no sin­gle can­di­date wins a major­i­ty of pledged del­e­gates on the first bal­lot, the choice goes to a sec­ond bal­lot where all del­e­gates are free to vote how­ev­er they like — includ­ing those hun­dreds of par­ty big­wigs known as the superdelegates.

What that means is that four years after inflam­ing pro­gres­sive rage in 2016, and only two years after hav­ing their pow­er weak­ened, superdel­e­gates may well help decide anoth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion. And if so, they will work exact­ly as designed: to allow the par­ty estab­lish­ment to kneecap an out­sider can­di­date if the demo­c­ra­t­ic process goes in a direc­tion unfa­vor­able to par­ty elites.

Peer review”

As out­lined in my 2016 In These Times inves­ti­ga­tion, superdel­e­gates were cre­at­ed in 1982 by the Hunt Com­mis­sion over frus­tra­tion with the nom­i­nat­ing reforms of 1970, which par­ty lead­ers blamed for allow­ing the nom­i­na­tion of an unruly out­sider like Jim­my Carter, and thus his 1980 drub­bing at the hands of Ronald Rea­gan. As Elaine Kamar­ck, a Hunt Com­mis­sion mem­ber and superdel­e­gate, explained to In These Times in 2016, the par­ty came off that loss look­ing to pro­tect itself from future out­lier candidates.”

The tran­scripts of the commission’s sev­en-month-long dis­cus­sions from July 1981 to Feb­ru­ary 1982, obtained from the Nation­al Archives, make painful­ly clear how sharply the cre­ation of the superdel­e­gates was tied to anx­i­ety over the loss of influ­ence for par­ty elites. As Xan­dra Kay­den, a mem­ber of the Cen­ter for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Pol­i­cy (now Cen­ter for Nation­al Pol­i­cy), explained in August 1981, the advent of the pri­ma­ry sys­tem was the prin­ci­pal rea­son we lost con­trol of the nom­i­na­tion at the pres­i­den­tial lev­el,” and Demo­c­ra­t­ic offi­cials and top-ranked par­ty mem­bers had to regain con­trol of the nomination.”

There are those who feel on the one hand that the fate of the Par­ty has been what it has been because of the reforms” of those years, said Wal­ter Faun­troy, a civ­il rights activist and the Dis­trict of Columbia’s non-vot­ing del­e­gate to Con­gress. He added dur­ing the dis­cus­sions that had the par­ty reg­u­lars and the par­ty struc­ture remained in con­trol of nom­i­na­tions and in con­trol of resources and the like, that our fate would have been much better.”

Those involved had deep doubts about the wis­dom of open­ing up the nom­i­nat­ing process to con­trol by voters.

Whether you have 100,000 or 10,000 or 10 mil­lion peo­ple par­tic­i­pate has no bear­ing what­so­ev­er on the qual­i­ty of the out­come,” Min­neapo­lis May­or Don Fras­er said at the time. This was after Fras­er had opened the pro­ceed­ings by jok­ing that the par­ty could sim­ply decide to ignore the results of the pri­maries entire­ly, receiv­ing gen­er­al laugh­ter” from the room.

We are the only demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­try in the world in which polit­i­cal par­ties pick their can­di­dates in this man­ner,” Austin Ran­ney, an elec­tion expert and alum of the 1968 Hubert Humphrey cam­paign, com­plained at the time. In every oth­er demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­try in the world, you name it, this is the case, the can­di­date is picked by a rel­a­tive­ly small group of par­ty peo­ple in which the party’s elect­ed pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives, peo­ple who have faced the test of get­ting them­selves elect­ed to pub­lic office, play a promi­nent role.”

Cen­tral to this was the idea of par­ty elites’ supe­ri­or wis­dom — the cer­tain polit­i­cal acu­men, a cer­tain polit­i­cal anten­na” they brought to pro­ceed­ings, as Con­necti­cut State Sen. Dick Schneller put it at the time.

Ran­ney com­plained that the old sys­tem, one where par­ty elites alone decid­ed, meant there was a process of peer review.” Pick­ing a win­ning can­di­date through such means wasn’t guar­an­teed, he said, but the odds were much higher.

There is nobody who can bet­ter tell a can­di­date how to win the state of Cal­i­for­nia than a sen­a­tor or a gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia who has in fact won that state sev­er­al times,” said Kamar­ck. It echoed the view of future vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Geral­dine Fer­raro, who told par­tic­i­pants that par­ty elites can pos­i­tive­ly bring to the con­ven­tion the views of the grass­roots who are their constituents.”

Com­bat­ing spe­cial interests”

At the heart of all this was the party’s trau­ma from the 1980 land­slide loss, which offi­cials viewed as a prod­uct of choos­ing unrep­re­sen­ta­tive can­di­dates who catered only to the party’s base.

We have fair reflec­tion of those vot­ers and cau­cus par­tic­i­pants who vote or par­tic­i­pate in the cau­cus­es, but what about the major­i­ty of Democ­rats who vote in Novem­ber but not in the pri­maries?” polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Thomas Mann asked at the time.

Some­times I think that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in its present ver­sion comes across to a great many peo­ple as not so much a sin­gle par­ty work­ing for a com­mon goal as a bunch of its sin­gle inter­est groups, spe­cial inter­ests groups itself,” griped Ran­ney. There is the Women’s Lob­by and there is the — I mean Cau­cus, and there is the Black Cau­cus, and there is the Right to Life Cau­cus, and there is this cau­cus and there is that caucus.”

This kind of rhetoric was com­mon for the era, per­haps best embod­ied by none oth­er than for­mer vice pres­i­dent and cur­rent Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­tender Joe Biden. As out­lined in my forth­com­ing polit­i­cal biog­ra­phy of Biden, the then-Delaware sen­a­tor spent the 1980s tour­ing with the cor­po­rate-backed Demo­c­ra­t­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil (DLC) lec­tur­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to change.

Biden would lat­er com­plain in 1993 about the idi­ot­ic groups out there” like the XYZ Group for Amer­i­can Val­ues” and the QSY Group to Save All the Women in the World.” He made repeat­ed­ly clear through­out the decade that these inter­est groups” or spe­cial inter­ests” he and oth­er Democ­rats were com­plain­ing about weren’t, as they used to be, big busi­ness and its lob­by­ists; they were the var­i­ous minor­i­ty and activist groups that formed the party’s base.

In 1978, as he piv­ot­ed sharply right­ward for a re-elec­tion cam­paign held in the shad­ow of that year’s tax­pay­ers rebel­lion, he blamed the growth of the fed­er­al bud­get on con­stituent inter­est groups’ reluc­tance to cut pro­grams that specif­i­cal­ly ben­e­fit­ed them. Or as he told the NAACP con­ven­tion more blunt­ly in 1986 when tak­ing aim at Jesse Jackson’s cam­paign, You can’t try to pit the Rain­bow Coali­tion, blacks, His­pan­ics, poor whites, gays, against the mid­dle class.”

This mind­set was reflect­ed in the Hunt Com­mis­sion, whose name­sake, North Car­oli­na Gov. James Hunt—name-checked by Alvin From, then-head of the DLC, as a leader with an admirable record — sug­gest­ed some­thing sim­i­lar in the commission’s open­ing. There are some peo­ple in this par­ty that maybe still feel a lit­tle left out, and maybe some of them are the sort of mid­dle-income Amer­i­cans,” he said. I hope we can fig­ure out some ways to get them more involved. I think we can do that.”

In oth­er words, at the same time that Biden and oth­er neolib­er­al Democ­rats were cas­ti­gat­ing the par­ty for lis­ten­ing to spe­cial inter­ests” — mean­ing its diverse vot­ing base — over what they viewed as main­stream Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers, this mind­set found its way into the Hunt Com­mis­sion delib­er­a­tions. Par­tic­i­pants wor­ried about the par­ty becom­ing viewed as mere­ly a col­lec­tion of inter­est groups,” and hoped that giv­ing a big­ger voice to par­ty elites would ensure mid­dle income Amer­i­cans” and oth­er groups they viewed as alien­at­ed from the par­ty thanks to its ear­li­er rule changes were represented.

These ratio­nales were put to the test in 1984. Con­trary to the pop­u­lar adage that superdel­e­gates have nev­er decid­ed an elec­tion, by par­ty mem­bers’ own admis­sion at the time, superdel­e­gates were inte­gral in giv­ing estab­lish­ment-favorite can­di­date Wal­ter Mon­dale an ear­ly and sus­tained edge over his clos­est rivals that year: the young, charis­mat­ic and neolib­er­al Gary Hart, and the pro­gres­sive pop­ulist Jesse Jack­son. The superdel­e­gates then helped defeat or weak­en sev­er­al plat­form planks put for­ward by both, includ­ing rein­ing in the use of nuclear weapons and mil­i­tary force in gen­er­al and water­ing down an affir­ma­tive action program.

The elec­tion result didn’t bode well for the sup­pos­ed­ly supe­ri­or acu­men of par­ty elites: Mon­dale, who made cut­ting the deficit the cen­ter of his cam­paign, suf­fered an even worse defeat than Carter, win­ning only his home state of Min­neso­ta and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. In some ways, it pre­saged the out­come of 2016, when superdel­e­gates put their thumb on the scale for anoth­er estab­lish­ment can­di­date who suf­fered anoth­er (albeit vast­ly nar­row­er) elec­toral dis­as­ter at the hands of a rad­i­cal right-wing Republican.

The Democ­rats might be hop­ing the superdel­e­gates can still save them from Bernie Sanders. But there are grave rea­sons to ques­tion whether they’ll save them from Don­ald Trump.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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