Democrats Say Superdelegates Have Never Decided An Election. In 1984, They Thought the Opposite.

A review of newspaper reports from 1984 shows that Democratic officials believed the superdelegate system had “virtually assured” the nomination for the establishment candidate.

Branko Marcetic

A campaign button for the Mondale/Ferraro ticket in 1984. (Ranjit Bhatnagar/ Flickr)

It’s a firm­ly estab­lished defense of the superdel­e­gate sys­tem that the 700 or so Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lumi­nar­ies who can cast votes for any can­di­date of their choice have nev­er once decid­ed the nom­i­na­tion. DNC Chair Deb­bie Wasser­man Schultz cit­ed this in jus­ti­fy­ing their exis­tence, and it popped up in Saman­tha Bee’s wide­ly shared expla­na­tion-cum-defense of superdel­e­gates. Rather than a mech­a­nism for over­turn­ing the will of the vot­ers, the argu­ment goes, the superdel­e­gates are sim­ply a safe­guard against an insur­gent fringe” can­di­date — say, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic equiv­a­lent of a Don­ald Trump — draw­ing a huge pri­ma­ry turnout that isn’t rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the larg­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic electorate.

Reporting from the convention, the Washington Post wrote that “There are those here who contend that [superdelegates’] presence may have saved the party’s national convention, and prospective presidential nominee, Walter F. Mondale, from disaster.”

Yet in 1984, the first Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion con­test in which superdel­e­gates played a role, Demo­c­ra­t­ic offi­cials held a very dif­fer­ent view. Many were quite sure the superdel­e­gates had helped Wal­ter Mon­dale secure the nomination.

Two years ear­li­er, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty had rad­i­cal­ly altered its nom­i­nat­ing process to cre­ate superdel­e­gates. Par­ty offi­cials thought pri­maries and cau­cus­es were to blame for two land­slide defeats in the past decade: of South Dako­ta Sen. George McGov­ern in 1972 and Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter in 1980. As a recent In These Times inves­ti­ga­tion found, a major fear was that pri­maries could allow out­siders” to snatch the nom­i­na­tion. Superdel­e­gates were insti­tut­ed to pre­vent this.

When the 1984 con­ven­tion rolled around, Demo­c­ra­t­ic offi­cials were pleased to see superdel­e­gates had done their job.

Report­ing from the con­ven­tion, the Wash­ing­ton Post wrote that There are those here who con­tend that [superdel­e­gates’] pres­ence may have saved the party’s nation­al con­ven­tion, and prospec­tive pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, Wal­ter F. Mon­dale, from disaster.”

Mon­dale, whom the Wash­ing­ton Post lat­er referred to as the very per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the Wash­ing­ton polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment,” had run a three-way race against Jesse Jack­son and Sen. Gary Hart. Jack­son remained solid­ly in third place, win­ning two con­tests and 18 per­cent of the vote, but the rel­a­tive­ly young Hart, 48, launched a sur­pris­ing­ly strong bid for the nom­i­na­tion, win­ning 25 state pri­maries and cau­cus­es to Mondale’s 21 (which includ­ed Puer­to Rico).

It wasn’t that the superdel­e­gates over­turned the pop­u­lar vote: In the end, Mon­dale nar­row­ly beat Hart, 6.8 mil­lion to 6.5 mil­lion. But Democ­rats believed superdel­e­gates had act­ed as a bal­last through­out the con­test to tip the bal­ance toward Mon­dale and stave off his challengers.

Much as they have dur­ing this year’s cam­paign, superdel­e­gates were key in giv­ing the fron­trun­ner an ear­ly momen­tum and estab­lish­ing what appeared to be an insur­mount­able lead.

Begin­ning in 1983, the Mon­dale camp launched what the Wash­ing­ton Post called a full-court press” to win House sup­port, which involved the foun­da­tion of respect” he had built among House mem­bers, but also the cash­ing in on years of friend­ships, favors and fund-rais­ing speech­es.” Demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­bers of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives form a sub­stan­tial bloc of the superdel­e­gates: 164, to the Senate’s 25.

At the urg­ing of the Mon­dale cam­paign, Speak­er of the House Tip O’Neill sched­uled the selec­tion of House superdel­e­gates for Jan­u­ary 26, a month before Iowa and New Hamp­shire were due to vote. A Wash­ing­ton Post sur­vey found that 95 of the new­ly select­ed superdel­e­gates went for Mon­dale, more than five times as many as his near­est rival at that point, Ohio Sen. and for­mer astro­naut John Glenn. (Hart, whose cam­paign had yet to take off, received the sup­port of only four.) As Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion Senior Fel­low Elaine Kamar­ck lat­er wrote, In essence, this turned the House del­e­gate selec­tion con­test into the first pri­ma­ry, a move that paid off rich­ly for Mondale.”

As the Post put it, House mem­bers played a key role in giv­ing Mon­dale a head start on the extra del­e­gates he need­ed to ensure him­self the nomination.”

This pat­tern con­tin­ued through­out the cam­paign. And, just as in the 2015 – 2016 pri­maries, superdel­e­gates were reg­u­lar­ly count­ed in the del­e­gate totals by the media, giv­ing Mon­dale an inflat­ed lead over his rival. Kamar­ck not­ed that the superdel­e­gates con­sis­tent­ly boost­ed Mondale’s lead by 70 to 100 del­e­gates, which was espe­cial­ly use­ful in help­ing the Mon­dale cam­paign mask its loss­es on Super Tues­day.” On May 10, with eight pri­maries and cau­cus­es to go, Mon­dale had a 5‑to‑1 lead among superdelegates.

Then as now, superdel­e­gates often cre­at­ed a dis­crep­an­cy between the win­ner of the pop­u­lar vote in a state and the win­ner of the most del­e­gates. Hart received few­er del­e­gates than Mon­dale in nine of the states in which he was the vic­tor, while Jack­son, who won the plu­ral­i­ty of the vote in Louisiana, was like­wise over­tak­en by Mon­dale in that state’s del­e­gate count. Of the 13 cau­cus­es that Hart won, he only received the plu­ral­i­ty of superdel­e­gates in two.

Priscil­la South­well, a polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon, wrote in 1986 that this lead clear­ly gave Mondale’s can­di­da­cy a boost,” not to men­tion a psy­cho­log­i­cal advantage.

Com­menters at the time agreed. They’ve vir­tu­al­ly assured Fritz Mondale’s nom­i­na­tion,” Mick­ey Kan­tor, the Cal­i­for­nia chair­man of the Mon­dale del­e­ga­tion, told the Wash­ing­ton Post on July 18. (“Fritz” was an affec­tion­ate nick­name often used for Mondale).

With­out the superdel­e­gates,” a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gres­sion­al aide told the New York Times three days ear­li­er, Mon­dale might not be over the top right now.”

As was wide­ly report­ed at the time, Mon­dale’s court­ing of the superdel­e­gates was ulti­mate­ly what put him over the 1,967-delegate thresh­old to win, thus avoid­ing a con­test­ed con­ven­tion. Con­test­ed, or bro­kered” con­ven­tions, take place when no can­di­date has a major­i­ty of del­e­gates and there is thus no clear and defin­i­tive choice. The nom­i­nee is then decid­ed by the del­e­gates present vot­ing freely for their pre­ferred choice, some­times in more than one round of voting.

Thanks in part to the three-way nature of the race, Mon­dale was 40 del­e­gates short of this mag­ic num­ber by the time the con­ven­tion rolled around, with only a slight lead in the pop­u­lar vote. Pro­fes­sor South­well posit­ed that had he not been able to con­vince superdel­e­gates to give him the extra boost he need­ed, Hart, who had launched a come­back in the final months of the cam­paign, may have been able to make a suc­cess­ful chal­lenge for the nom­i­na­tion at the con­ven­tion. How­ev­er, Mon­dale’s near-total dom­i­na­tion” of the superdel­e­gates, as the Boston Globe put it, made this a non-starter.

The Democ­rats’ cor­po­rate board of directors

Reports at the time also sug­gest­ed that Mondale’s selec­tion of New York Con­gress­woman Geral­dine Fer­raro as a run­ning mate had a lot to do with her par­tic­i­pa­tion in the 1981 – 1982 Hunt Com­mis­sion, which cre­at­ed the superdelegates.

Fer­raro, a three-term Ital­ian Amer­i­can con­gress­woman from Queens, was the first woman on a major-par­ty tick­et in his­to­ry, and her inclu­sion was intend­ed to bring excite­ment to an oth­er­wise unin­spir­ing cam­paign and appeal to eth­nic groups like Ital­ians that had aban­doned the Democrats.

But her role in the Hunt Com­mis­sion had also raised her vis­i­bil­i­ty. As report­ed by In These Times, Fer­raro had argued for elect­ed offi­cials to have a larg­er role in the nom­i­nat­ing process because no one is bet­ter able to rep­re­sent [the grass­roots] at the con­ven­tion than a Mem­ber of Con­gress.” The New York Times quot­ed one Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty aide as recall­ing that she had car­ried the water” for Con­gres­sion­al lead­ers by advo­cat­ing cre­ation of the superdel­e­gate sys­tem.” This, accord­ing to the Times, con­tributed sig­nif­i­cant­ly to her selec­tion as VP.

Superdel­e­gates also had a pro­found influ­ence on that year’s par­ty plat­form. Demo­c­ra­t­ic offi­cials and Hunt Com­mis­sion mem­bers had com­plained that ever since 1970 reforms gave greater weight to pri­maries and cau­cus­es, par­ty big­wigs had been miss­ing from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­ven­tions, lead­ing to the ele­vat­ed influ­ence of fac­tions” and sin­gle-inter­est groups.”

As news­pa­per reports from 1984 make clear, the superdel­e­gate sys­tem worked as intend­ed by revers­ing these two trends. Par­ty lead­ers told the New York Times that the 1982 reforms had cre­at­ed a nom­i­nat­ing process that favors main­stream can­di­dates and poli­cies.” An aide to Speak­er O’Neill told the Wash­ing­ton Post that superdel­e­gates had curbed ide­o­log­i­cal excess­es and ensured that the par­ty would not get caught up in polit­i­cal dead ends.’”

Indeed, the superdel­e­gates helped defeat a series of minor­i­ty plat­form planks” that were advo­cat­ed by both Hart and Jack­son, keep­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty on the ide­o­log­i­cal­ly straight and nar­row. Jack­son had pro­posed planks that made sub­stan­tial” cuts to defense spend­ing and promised no first use” of nuclear weapons by the Unit­ed States. He also put for­ward an affir­ma­tive action plan, which was watered down and adopt­ed. Hart, mean­while, put for­ward a failed plank to rein in the uni­lat­er­al use of mil­i­tary force.

Oth­er than Jackson’s affir­ma­tive action plan, the del­e­gates reject­ed all of these as falling out­side the rea­son­able lim­its of their candidate’s views,” accord­ing to the New York Times. While thou­sands of words of new lan­guage from both camps were ulti­mate­ly adopt­ed, includ­ing a plank by Hart that crit­i­cized mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion over­seas, the final plat­form bore the mark of the superdel­e­gates. While firm­ly in the sphere of New Deal pol­i­tics, the final plat­form was more con­ser­v­a­tive than pre­vi­ous ones, man­dat­ing scaled-back social poli­cies and strict­ly no new social spend­ing, while leav­ing out defense cuts that weak­en our secu­ri­ty,” as Mon­dale put it.

The New York Times her­ald­ed the plat­form as one that avoids odd promis­es to obscure spe­cial inter­ests,” call­ing it a less mea­sur­able, but equal­ly real, indi­ca­tion of the suc­cess of the lat­est rules changes.”

The superdel­e­gate sys­tem gave elect­ed offi­cials tremen­dous influ­ence” in putting oil between the wheels,” at the con­ven­tion, as the chair­man of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee explained at the time; or as Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen put it, it was an exam­ple of the superdel­e­gates act­ing as a board of direc­tors,” step­ping in to resolve inter­nal divides.

Who were the superdelegates?

The superdel­e­gates had some­thing else in com­mon with a cor­po­rate board of direc­tors — they were rel­a­tive­ly old­er, wealth­i­er, whiter, more con­ser­v­a­tive and more like­ly to be men.

A New York Times sur­vey that year of 1,561 del­e­gates, includ­ing 523 of the 568 superdel­e­gates, found that superdel­e­gates tend­ed to be more expe­ri­enced, more mod­er­ate and more loy­al to the par­ty than the del­e­gates cho­sen by pri­maries and cau­cus­es.” Twen­ty-one per­cent of pledged del­e­gates iden­ti­fied as very lib­er­al” and 30 per­cent as some­what lib­er­al,” com­pared to only 14 and 22 per­cent of superdel­e­gates, respec­tive­ly. Superdel­e­gates also tend­ed to be wealth­i­er, with 25 per­cent mak­ing six fig­ure incomes, com­pared to 10 per­cent of pledged del­e­gates. Although no such com­pre­hen­sive sta­tis­tics on del­e­gates exist today, there are good rea­sons to believe much of this remains true: Many superdel­e­gates are office hold­ers, who tend to be old­er and have deep­er ties to the par­ty, and the major­i­ty of whom are millionaires.

The sur­vey also found that ini­tial con­cerns by mem­bers of the Hunt Com­mis­sion that cre­at­ing a sys­tem where white men were more equal than oth­ers” were large­ly jus­ti­fied. Unpledged del­e­gates were 73 per­cent male and 82 per­cent white. Less than half of pledged del­e­gates were men, though 75 per­cent were white.

The gap is less stark today, but at 58 per­cent male and 62 per­cent white, superdel­e­gates con­tin­ue to skew to a par­tic­u­lar demographic.

A thumb on the scales

The 1984 race is not per­fect­ly anal­o­gous to 2016. Hart was no Bernie Sanders. While he preached a post-Cold War for­eign pol­i­cy, railed against mil­i­tary aggres­sion and ener­gized and attract­ed young vot­ers, inde­pen­dents and Repub­li­cans, he was also a post-New Deal Demo­c­rat whose New Ideas” poli­cies pre­saged the right-lean­ing New Demo­c­rat move­ment of Bill Clinton.

Still, his cam­paign stands today as arguably the clear­est exam­ple of the way in which the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nat­ing sys­tem can be lever­aged by par­ty insid­ers to influ­ence an elec­tion — and to cor­rect per­ceived devi­a­tions from polit­i­cal orthodoxies.

This can also be seen in the cam­paign of Jesse Jack­son, who ener­gized mil­lions of black vot­ers but felt the cards were stacked against him from start to fin­ish. It would not be the last time Jack­son tus­sled with the superdel­e­gate sys­tem, com­plain­ing sim­i­lar­ly in 1988 that the sys­tem was inequitable” and demon­stra­bly unfair,” and cal­cu­lat­ing that his oppo­nent held a 233 per­cent lead in superdel­e­gates while he only had a 27 per­cent lead in votes.

If noth­ing else, it should give Democ­rats pause in think­ing that superdel­e­gates have nev­er helped decide a nom­i­na­tion — and that they nev­er will.

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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