Since its launch, a specter has haunted Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic nomination. It’s not his age, though at 74 he would be the oldest president in American history. And it’s not that he’s an avowed socialist, the label that a mere eight years ago was used to smear Barack Obama as a sinister, alien threat to the American way of life. Rather, it has been the so-called superdelegates — the 712 Democratic Party insiders who are free to vote at the nominating convention for the candidate of their choosing.
The corporate media’s early inclusion of the superdelegates in the delegate count created the impression of an inevitable Clinton nomination. Seventy-three percent of superdelegates — 520 of the 712 — have pledged their support to the former secretary of state, but superdelegates are free to change their minds any time before the Democratic National Convention in July.
By February 20, when only three states had held nominating contests, such reporting had conferred on the Clinton campaign an aura of insurmountability, leading some voters to question whether their votes truly mattered. Even as Sanders won a string of contests at the end of March to narrow Clinton’s lead, superdelegates in those states stubbornly clung to Clinton. Despite the second-biggest victory ever in a contested New Hampshire Democratic primary, Sanders was credited with the same number of total delegates as Clinton, thanks to superdelegates.
This has rubbed many the wrong way. There have been widespread calls to abolish the superdelegate system — and not all from the Sanders camp. Even Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, called the system “unfair.”
The attitude of Democratic Party bigwigs hasn’t helped. When a Sanders supporter criticized superdelegate Howard Dean for sticking with Clinton despite Sanders’ landslide victory in Vermont, Dean tweeted back: “Superdelegates don’t ‘represent the people’…I’ll do what I think is right for the country.”
In an added twist, the Sanders campaign suggested in April that if neither candidate reaches the 2,383-delegate threshold for victory from pledged delegates, it will attempt to win the nomination by flipping superdelegates with the argument that Sanders is more electable. Critics have called the strategy hypocritical, given Sanders’ invocation of democratic revolution and his earlier criticism of superdelegates.
The Democratic Party’s bizarrely undemocratic process raises an obvious question: Why did it choose to institute such a system? To answer that, you need to go back to the Hunt Commission, which in 1982, invented the superdelegate.
The proceedings of that Commission were never published, so In These Times went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to study the transcripts of the seven-month-long discussions. The records paint a picture of a party eager to win and convinced that, in order to do so, it must return control of the nominating process to top officials. It’s a strategy that reflects a shift in the party since the 1970s, away from the grassroots — a shift that has led to tensions within the party that are boiling to the surface with Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
A TALE OF TWO COMMISSIONS
In many ways, the Hunt Commission was formed as a rebuke to a commission convened by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) a decade earlier, also to overhaul the nominating process: the 1969-1970 McGovern-Fraser Commission.
Prior to 1970, the nominating process had been anything but democratic. Primaries, introduced at the turn of the century, were few and non-binding. Party members had carte blanche to select the candidate at the convention. At the 1968 Democratic convention, the pro-Vietnam War candidate Hubert Humphrey won the nomination over antiwar Sen. Eugene McCarthy by courting party honchos, having not run in a single primary — meanwhile, McCarthy had won more primaries than any other candidate.
Humphrey’s win outraged McCarthy supporters and exacerbated the split between pro- and antiwar camps. Fistfights broke out on the convention floor while police clubbed and tear-gassed protesters outside.
The melee prompted the formation of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which rewrote the rules governing party nominations. Charging that voter participation in the 1968 election had been “illusory,” the commission’s 1970 rules shifted the balance of power from party leaders to the rank and file, mandating that delegates be chosen in forums open to all party members. These rules would lead to an explosion in the number of primaries. They more than doubled from 17 in 1968 to 35 in 1980. While only 13 million Americans participated in the 1968 nominating process, 32 million did in 1980. Previously pivotal, the Democratic National Convention became more symbolic.
Over the course of the next three elections, however, the party suffered two landslide losses. First, in 1972, liberal antiwar Sen. George McGovern (S.D.) suffered an unprecedented 49-state defeat to Richard Nixon. Then, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan by a resounding 10 percent of the popular vote.
Party higher-ups concluded that the 10-year experiment with democratization had been a failure. “The news for Democrats is not good,” read a 1981 report commissioned by the DNC. Not only were Democrats losing elections, but party membership was precipitously dropping. According to University of Michigan polling cited in the report, 41 percent of the electorate called themselves Democrats in May 1980; a year later, only 31 percent did, while those identifying themselves as Independents had shot up 8 points to 42 percent. More alarming, the proportion calling themselves Republicans increased from 23 percent to 27 percent. The Democrats were concerned their donkey was headed toward extinction.
There are many explanations for this decline — voter apathy, disillusionment with politics, the rise of more candidate-centered campaigns — but the DNC seized upon one that lay within its control: the McGovern-Frasier Commission reforms.
“By bringing the process ‘to the people,’ the Democratic Party has lost its leadership, collective vision and ties to its past,” stated a white paper produced by California’s 43rd and 44th Assembly District Democratic Councils in May 1981.
Enter the Hunt Commission. Winning elections was its goal. DNC Chair Charles Manatt told commission members at the first session, “Improving the nominating process will bring us victory in 1984, and by God…that’s what we’re all about.”
From August 1981 to February 1982, the 70-member commission met in some of Washington, D.C.’s most storied hotels. From the Capitol Hilton to the Mayflower — a mecca for the capital’s rich and powerful, where Franklin Roosevelt’s right-hand man first penned the line “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — a group of labor leaders, high-ranking party functionaries, senators, representatives, governors and mayors hammered out the nitty-gritty details of reform.
The gathering got off on a light note when Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser joked that the party could simply announce it wouldn’t nominate anyone selected through the primaries. This, the transcript notes, elicited “general laughter.”
The very democracy of the primary process appears to have made the Commission members nervous. They felt they had to give party elites — elected officials and high-ranking party members — a greater hand in choosing candidates, or as Xandra Kayden, a member of the Center for Democratic Policy (now Center for National Policy), put it, the power to “to regain control of the nomination.”
This was partly couched in a belief in elites’ superior judgment. “They bring to the convention a certain political acumen, a certain political antenna,” explained Connecticut state Sen. Dick Schneller, a liberal member of the party.
The inspiration for these words was likely Jimmy Carter, whose presidency cast a long shadow over the proceedings. The Georgia governor had won the nomination running as an outsider against “the political bosses.” Carter often bragged in his stump speech: “I’ve never worked in Washington. I’m not a senator or congressman. I’ve never met a Democratic president.”
As president, he passed over party insiders for appointments in favor of his close-knit team of Georgia unknowns. His strained relationship with his party was exacerbated by his reluctance to compromise on pork-barrel spending, which congressmen relied on to shore up support in their districts.
“[Carter’s] nomination at least would not have been possible under the old rules,” said Austin Ranney, an expert on elections who had worked on the 1968 Humphrey campaign and served on the McGovern-Fraser Commission.
Though his name was not invoked as often as Carter’s, these reforms were also a rebuke of George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 campaign. McGovern had won the nomination on the back of the grassroots-focused reforms he himself had helped institute in 1970. “The [Hunt] Commission doesn’t want a system that lends itself to a McGovern or Carter,” Rick Stearns, a member of the Commission’s advisory committee, would later tell the press in explaining the rationale for superdelegates.
Another fear was that the 1970 reforms led to nominees out of step with the party’s ever-shifting center — whether to its left, or, in the case of Carter, to its right. “Liberal-reformers realized that the same rules which made it easier for a liberal-insurgent like George McGovern to get nominated could be used successfully by a Southern-conservative-insurgent, which is how they perceived Carter,” wrote Commission member and Maryland Democratic Committeeman Lanny Davis not long after.
A concern was that primaries, with their lower turnout rates than general elections, could give undue power to single-issue “factions.” This was a standard complaint at the time (and since): that the Democratic Party was coming under the sway of groups devoted to narrowly focused causes, from gun control and environmentalism to feminism and civil rights.
“Our decisions will make the convention more representative of the mainstream of the party,” the Commission’s chair, North Carolina Gov. James Hunt, told the press shortly before the Commission finished. “We lost a lot of people in the last few years. Our actions should make mainstream Democrats feel better.”
“Mainstream” may have been code for the working-class voters who were fleeing the Democratic Party. The 1981 DNC report had noted significant differences between primary and general election voters; primary voters tended to be better-educated and middle-class.
While the loss of working-class support was a problem that would dog the party for decades, Commission members saw no illogic in addressing this disaffection by reinstating top-down control. Many seemed to truly believe that superdelegates could represent the will of the people more faithfully than the votes of the people could.
“They can positively bring to the convention the views of the grassroots who are their constituents,” explained New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, who would become the first woman vice-presidential candidate on a major-party ticket when she was tapped by Walter Mondale three years later. “No one is better able to represent them at the convention than a member of Congress.”
DISSENT IN THE RANKS
Not everyone was on board with these changes. Some Commission members questioned whether the focus on reforming rules ignored the broader factors behind the Democratic Party’s woes. “The other team was using the same system and the same process” when they won the 1980 election, noted Sen. Dick Schneller: “What was the difference?”
One difference, of course, was that the late 1960s and 1970s had occasioned an extraordinary conservative revival that helped sweep Richard Nixon and, later, Ronald Reagan into power. An interlocking network of grassroots campaigners, intellectuals, media, think tanks and advocacy groups formed what came to be known as the New Right, helping set the stage for four decades of conservative ascendancy.
Dissenting Commission members also foresaw pitfalls in the creation of superdelegates. New York state Democratic Committeewoman Barbara Fife pointed out that superdelegates would be mostly white and male, undermining the Democrats’ commitment to equal representation. That proved true: In 2008, about half of Democratic superdelegates were white men.
Oklahoma state Rep. Cleta Deatherage worried — presciently, it turns out — that creating different “castes” of delegates would create “dissensus” within the party, and wondered what would happen if superdelegates “begin to move against what is perceived to be a popular choice?”
It would be easy to caricature the Hunt Commission as a cabal of party bosses scheming in some smoke-filled room. But the record suggests that the participants were genuinely interested in doing the right thing. Throughout the hearings, they affirmed the importance of ensuring equal representation for women and minorities in the party. They believed the creation of superdelegates and the rolling back of primaries would better serve the party, its voters and the country. As the Commission’s final report pointed out, primaries had created a longer, more expensive and divisive nomination process, and the “frontloading” of states early in the process threatened to sew up the nomination prematurely.
Yet the Commission’s work was based on questionable assumptions. Commission advisor Rick Stearns’ cagey defense of superdelegates in 1982 illustrates this best: “It’s like Reagan’s economic policy. If you accept the premise, it’s good.” The premise, in this case, was that politics was the domain of those at the top, those most qualified and best placed to help achieve political victories.
The Hunt Commission ultimately approved a smattering of new rules that subtly rolled back earlier democratization, but the pièce de résistance was what came to be known as superdelegates. They would make up just over 14 percent of national convention delegates and include two-thirds of the Democratic members of Congress, as well as state and local party officials, state party chairs and vice chairs.
Whether the creation of superdelegates succeeded in its idealistic objectives is another question. For all the Commission’s envy of the GOP and its handwringing over party unity, Ronald Reagan became the Republican nominee over the efforts of his own party’s establishment, who loathed the former California governor. The Hunt Commission rules make it less likely that Democrats will elect the progressive equivalent of a Reagan, far off the center and hated by the party establishment, but a transformative president who secured his party’s ascendancy.
The Democrats’ new rules were put to the test during the 1984 election, when Mondale, the superdelegates’ overwhelming choice, received the worst drubbing in the history of the Democratic Party. If the Commission’s most important criterion for success was winning, the superdelegate strategy had failed.
THE SUPERDELEGATES’ KRYPTONITE
In recent months, momentum has been building on the Left to overhaul the Democratic Party nomination system, including superdelegates — part of the larger “battle for the soul of the Democratic Party” that has emerged in and around Sanders’ campaign.
“The superdelegates are an acid test for whether you think the Democratic Party should be democratic,” says Ben Wikler, MoveOn’s Washington director.
MoveOn petitions in 48 states urging superdelegates to support primary and caucus winners have drawn a collective 380,000 signatures and swayed a number of superdelegates. One is Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who recanted his early commitment to Clinton and promised to vote for whomever wins the most pledged delegates.
Superdelegate and Florida Rep. Alan Grayson took a novel approach, holding an online election to determine his vote, which attracted nearly 400,000 people and saw Sanders win 84-16.
And on April 4, a Sanders fan created a “superdelegate hit list” (since rechristened a “superdelegate list”) with the contact information of superdelegates, allowing voters to get in touch and persuade them to switch their votes.
Some are going a step further and trying to remove superdelegates from the Democratic nominating process altogether. It’s the core demand of the March on the DNC, a convention protest organized by the Philadelphia-based Equality Coalition for Bernie Sanders.
The Sanders camp — which includes Grayson, campaign advisor Larry Cohen and Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva — and groups like MoveOn are also discussing plans to push for the abolition of superdelegates at the convention.
Both Grayson and Cohen point out that the Democratic superdelegates are uniquely undemocratic in the American party system. The Republican equivalent — 168 party members who are guaranteed a vote at the convention — must vote in line with their respective states and only comprise 7 percent of the total delegates, compared to the DNC superdelegates’ 15 percent.
The Sanders campaign’s new superdelegate-courting strategy, however, raises questions about its ability to call for the abolition of superdelegates come July. Following Sanders’ April 19 defeat in New York, campaign manager Jeff Weaver confirmed that if Sanders trails Clinton in pledged delegates going into the convention, the campaign will attempt to win the nomination by appealing to superdelegates. “It’s going to be an election determined by the superdelegates,” he told MSNBC. “They’re going to want to win in November.” Asked about this, Cohen told In These Times the “campaign strategy is evolving.”
Some argue that superdelegates would never dare overturn the popular will. They point out that superdelegates have never supported a candidate who didn’t win in pledged delegates, as in 2008, when they began flocking to Obama once he started amassing primary victories. Reformers shoot back: Then what’s the point of having them at all?
Cohen also notes the “false momentum” created by superdelegates who support a candidate early — ironically, a problem created by primaries that the Hunt Commission created superdelegates to combat.
R.T. Rybak, DNC vice chair and a superdelegate himself, says there’s no backroom dealing behind superdelegates’ early support for Clinton. “That reflects in large part elected officials with constituencies who are going largely for Clinton,” he says.
Of course, influence is rarely as simple as quid pro quo. Clinton has been a central figure and fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee for two decades, and is actively raising money for the party now via her joint fundraising committee with the DNC, the Hillary Victory Fund. Many superdelegates are Democratic officials who are in her debt.
Rybak points to the GOP’s current Trump woes as an example of superdelegates’ necessity. “There are times where strictly who voted in that year’s primaries is not completely representative,” he says.
Whatever happens, it’s clear the Hunt Commission’s vision is falling out of favor with many of today’s rank-and-file Democrats. But this current battle is nothing new. Party activists have battled against the party’s drift toward the right and away from the grassroots since the 1970s.
“The Republicans adopted a populist appeal at the same moment Democrats walked away from populism,” says Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
Did the Republican Party’s cultivation of its grassroots give it the edge over the Democratic Party?
“That is the big question of our time,” Frank says.
Whether or not the Hunt Commission reforms hurt the Democrats electorally, it’s clear that the party’s focus on winning gave it tunnel vision. The Commission discussions were peppered with hopeful declarations that if only the party could win back the enthusiasm of its elected officials by giving them more of a stake, victory would be assured. But there was no discussion of doing the same for the base.
For those seeking reform, the superdelegate issue, like so much else in the Democratic Party, comes down to democracy. “Either we have a populist-based Democratic Party, or we have a party of the elite,” says Cohen. “It can’t be both.”
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.