One of the Inventors of Superdelegates Explains Why They Were Created: To Stop ‘Outlier Candidates’

A member of the 1982 commission explains why they created superdelegates and what they hoped to prevent.

Branko Marcetic

Superdelegates were created as a safeguard against nominees like George McGovern, whom Democratic Party officials saw as ‘too far to the left.’ (Library of Congress)

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When it comes to the issue of superdelegates, Elaine Kamarck is a rare triple threat. She was a participant on the 1981 – 1982 Hunt Commission, which instituted the controversial superdelegate system. She literally wrote the book on the presidential nomination system, Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates. And she’s a superdelegate herself, joining the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 1997 and voting at three conventions since.

Those are just a few highlights of a long career that began with a job as research director for the Democratic National Committee’s 1977 Winograd Commission; Kamarck also helped found the New Democrat movement that propelled Bill Clinton to office and served in the Clinton White House from 1993 – 1997.

Following the publication of the June cover story, The Secret History of Superdelegates,” which examined the transcripts of the Hunt Commission, In These Times spoke with Dr. Kamarck about why superdelegates were created and what she thinks of them today.

The creation of superdelegates seems to have been intended as a corrective to the reforms of the 1969 – 70 McGovern-Fraser Commission, which took power away from party bosses and provided for the selection of delegates through primaries. Was there a sense that the primary system encouraged nominees who represented the party’s extremes?

Yeah, I mean what we’ve known for many years now is that primary electorates are not representative of the whole party. Republican primaries skew right and the Democrat primaries skew left. That’s really dawning on people after 1972, when you had a real increase in the number of primaries. There was a concern that we were going to be nominating unelectable candidates like George McGovern.

McGovern was the one that scared the pants off everybody because he had a big, big loss and he took down a lot of Democrats in 72. The 72 election hung over the Democratic Party through 76 and through 80 in much the same way I would anticipate that Trump’s candidacy could leave the same lasting scar tissue on the Republican Party, particularly if they lose big. Whenever a party nominates somebody who not only loses but loses badly, there’s always this instinct to look and see what is in our process that can protect us from what I call the outlier candidates.”

Does that mean these kinds of reforms are an overreaction to one outlier event?

Yeah, that’s why a lot of this so difficult, because what parties do tend to do is to react to the last election. 1972 was a real trauma for the Democrats — the beginning of the end of the New Deal coalition. Then Jimmy Carter loses in 1980 — two Republican landslides in 10 years.

In each case, the Democrats were very unhappy with their nominees and their president, for different reasons. They thought George McGovern was too far to the left, that his coalition alienated the regular party and so on. 1972 was also what created the Reagan Democrats who by 1980 were voting Republican. Then in 1980 a lot of Democrats thought, Well, we nominated a guy who was pretty inexperienced to be president and he blew it. Maybe we should pay more attention to who can be a good president.”

How did the bitter fight between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1980 figure in the Hunt Commission’s deliberations?

It was a particularly ugly fight that left very deep wounds in the party. As those floor debates were going on and Kennedy was making his statement speech, there were no party leaders on the floor. There was nobody there to put things back together.

The McGovern-Fraser reforms were aimed at opening up the party to other factions, particularly the anti-war faction in the late 60s and early 70s. But that didn’t mean that they wanted to cut out the entire party apparatus, which is what happened. A lot of what the Hunt Commission talked about was restoring the balance at the nominating convention.

You served on the Hunt Commission as a representative for Walter Mondale. What do you remember about the meetings — what was the mood like?

There was sense that it was time for adjustments to the new rules, which had done something the party didn’t intend: kept the elected officials out of the convention. None of the senators, congressmen or governors were delegates to the 1980 convention. They had to get themselves guest credentials to even get onto the floor.

When the Hunt Commission met, one of the concerns was that particularly in times when you might have real big issues at the convention, you needed the leadership of the party to be part of it.

That was the case for the governors and Congress. For the DNC members, it was slightly different. In all states, the DNC — the party chair and vice chair, especially — run the process. These people work like a dog, but it was not a good idea for them declare a presidential preference [in advance]. So they were included, and that’s how we got the modern superdelegates.

What role did the rivalry between Kennedy and Walter Mondale play in the Commission’s proceedings?

There was a lot of animosity against Ted Kennedy for what he did to the party in 1980: the fact that he challenged an incumbent president all the way until the end. One of the ironies is that Mondale, even though he was a very, very liberal senator, was thought to be more moderate than Kennedy. There were a lot of elected officials who were very nervous about another Kennedy run, seeing what he did to Carter in 1980, but also because in huge parts of the country, Kennedy was simply unelectable — mostly the South.

Remember, at that point in time, there were still Southern Democratic senators, congressmen and governors. There aren’t really anymore — unless they’re African-American, they’re extinct. But that was still a big piece of the party and they could see the writing on the wall, the weakness of the liberal Democratic Party in the South. They really did not want Ted Kennedy to be their standard-bearer.

In the end, it was the Kennedy people who organized the opposition to the superdelegates and, in fact, gave them the name superdelegates” and argued that they were undemocratic.

Yet in 1980, part of the acrimony of the nomination fight was that Kennedy wanted all delegates to be unbound and vote their conscience.

Believe me, people change their mind on these rules questions all the time depending on what their politics are. He was basically arguing in the 1980 convention that all delegates should be superdelegates and that the primaries shouldn’t matter. But that was because they thought they could break loose Carter delegates if they were unbound. It didn’t happen, but that was the strategy. There’s no ideological consistency there. It’s all about power politics.

One of the main goals of the Hunt Commission was to make the Democratic Party a winning party again. But in 1984, Mondale was the overwhelming choice of the superdelegates, and he ended up losing in another landslide. Does that mean the creation of the superdelegates was a failure?

I think the theory that it would keep Democrats nominating winning candidates was probably right. In 1984, Mondale was probably the strongest candidate against an incredibly popular Republican president who, remember, not only had peace and prosperity but also the crumbling of the Soviet Union. It probably could have been worse if they had a George McGovern-type of something like that, but 1984 was going to be a bad year regardless.

That reminds me of what Walter Fauntroy said at one point during the Commission’s proceedings. He argued that the nominating rules were ultimately irrelevant to the Democrats’ problems, saying: The thing that Franklin Roosevelt had going for him was Hoover, and the thing that Jimmy Carter had going for him was Watergate, and the thing that Ronald Reagan had going for him was a crumbling economy.” Was he right?

In the big picture of things, whether or not there are superdelegates helping to make the choice, that’s not going to help you when you’ve got 21 percent inflation and hostages in Iran. That was poor Jimmy Carter in 1980. He maybe had one of the worst hands since Herbert Hoover as president. He was not going to win.

But I think there is a different issue at stake here with the superdelegates, which is making sure that the whole party is involved in the choice of the nominee. And that has consequences not just for the election but for governing as well. Look at what’s happening to Trump right now and the Republicans. Electing a president whose own party runs against him is not great for passing legislation to make America great again.

Is there some kind of middle ground, a way to include those officials and create this bond between the nominee and the party without giving superdelegates the potential to block a popular candidate?

They’re not going to waste their time going to a convention if they don’t have a vote. After 2008, Obama people who had campaigned against superdelegates went to the DNC and asked that the number of superdelegates be reduced. Guess what: They weren’t. Why? Nobody was going to cut the governors, senators, House members or former presidents. Tell Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter they can’t vote at the convention.

And the people actually making these decisions are the members of the DNC. They weren’t going to throw themselves out.

Imagine you’re the Democratic Party Chair of Iowa in an election year. You have to find 1,681 precinct locations, you have to find people to chair, you have to train them how to run a caucus, you have to contract with somebody and set up the communication system to report the votes on caucus night, all in time for the press. Everybody all year long is yelling at you and hates your guts because they all think you’re for somebody else. If anything, the chair of the Iowa party should have five votes at the convention for the crap they put up with. This is a party-as-an-institution question.

Some argue that the GOP’s electoral triumphs of the last four decades were a result of the grassroots conservative movement that really came into force in the late 1970s and 1980s. Was it myopic of the Democratic Party to focus on these rules and regulations rather than cultivating a similar movement?

The first reaction of the party was to focus on rules and regulations, but the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in the late 80s shifted that focus to message. It was the DLC that started talking about New Democrats and that of course was how Clinton ran. Clinton finally broke the Republican hold on the presidency by essentially redefining Democrats in a way that was more palatable to a very conservative country. He was the turning point in fixing the actual content of the Democratic Party. Now, with this new generation of millennials, it’s swinging back a little bit. The country is a little more liberal.

Dick Schneller pointed out to the Commission that Ronald Reagan was nominated under the same system used by the Democrats in 1980. Reagan ended up being one of the most transformative presidents in history, but he was nominated against the wishes of his own party leaders. Does this mean superdelegates could serve as a roadblock to future transformative presidents like Reagan, only from the Left?

That’s always possible, but that’s where the primary comes in. One of the reasons we now have this hybrid system is that outside candidates can prove through the primary to everybody else that they are good at this. The example of 2008 is instructive. In 2008, Hillary Clinton started out with almost all of the superdelegates. But as the season went on, Obama showed himself being able to win white votes, and to be a smart, sensible guy who you could see as president.

The issue with Reagan was electability. Was he too conservative? But Ronald Reagan to the Republicans in 1980 was not George McGovern to the Democrats in 1972. He was much more like Obama: He showed over the course of the season that he was a great campaigner. McGovern never convinced the superdelegates of that, but Reagan in 1980 definitely did. 

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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.

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