Updated: May 2, 2022
(Links to documents and articles are in underlined in blue)
Superdelegates received an enormous amount of attention in both the 2008 and the 2016 Democratic presidential nominations. In the DNC Charter and Bylaw, superdelegates are referred to as UNpledged delegates, which means they have a free vote at the DNC convention. So who and what are they?
First, WHO are they? Superdelegates are basically two categories of people in the Democratic party. The first category is DNC (Democratic National Committee) members per the DNC Charter and Bylaws Article 2, Section 2 (page 12 of this doc): each state/territory's Chair, Vice-Chair, and their DNC committee members, who are elected, although the process for their elections vary by state. Every state and territory has at least one Committee man and one Committee woman and bigger states have more. Also, the DNC has numerous associations such as the Young Democrats, the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, or Treasurers, or Attorneys General, etc. Each one of these associations has a Chair and Vice Chair who are automatically DNC members. There are also seventy-five DNC members that are appointed by the Chairperson of the DNC every four years. DNC members meet twice a year and make decisions on party business.
The second category of superdelegates are what the party refers to as Distinguished Party Leaders (DPL) and are outlined in the DNC Charter, Article 2, Section 4 (h) (page 2 of this doc).. These are current Democratic members of Congress, Governors, Presidents and Vice-Presidents and former leaders, such as former Democratic Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Senate Majority and Minority leaders, House of Representative Majority and Minority Speakers, and lastly former Chairs of the DNC.
Next, WHAT are they? Now that we know WHO they are, let's figure out what they are. Why are they considered "super" delegates? To really understand the unpledged/superdelegates, you first need to know about the "pledged delegates". Pledged delegates are the delegates that represent the outcome of the primaries and caucuses. For example: if there are 100 pledged delegates allotted to a state and three candidates get a portion of the states' vote, the pledged delegates will be distributed accordingly. If Candidate A wins 50% of the vote, Candidate A will receive 50 delegates (50% of 100). If Candidate B wins 30% of the vote, they get 30 delegates (30% of 100) and Candidate C gets 20% of the vote, they get 20 delegates (20% of 100). The number of delegates a state receives is a complicated formula based on party registration and voter turnout in previous elections. Pledged delegates run for and are elected in their state to represent their candidate of choice at the DNC. Pledged delegate numbers for each candidate are generally known the morning after the primary or caucus. These numbers are placed in each candidates count and reported regularly, often with a running banner at the top of TV screens.
Superdelegates are not accounted for in the state delegate formula. Superdelegates are not required to "pledge" their support to any presidential candidate, but they can, and often do pledge early to their favorite candidate. It is also widely known that supers use their vote (and their ability to whip other super votes) as leverage for cabinet positions and political favor, although they would never admit that publicly. The interesting thing to note is that the superdelegates cannot vote until they get to the DNC Convention, however their not-yet-cast votes are reported over and over on the nightly news.
Hillary Clinton's 2008 bid for the presidency was also upset by superdelegates. Jeff Berman, an appointed member of the DNC Unity Reform Commission and the Rules and Bylaws Committee, was instrumental in whipping supers for Obama in the 2008 primary and was hired by Clinton to do the same for her in the 2016 primary. Berman wrote a fascinating book, The Magic Number, about how he managed to give his powerful clients very powerful advantages in their bids. (On a side note, Berman told me that after the 2008 convention, he was on a commission that made strong recommendations that he supported to reduce superdelegates even more than the Unity Reform Commission recommendation. He said that recommendation was not accepted by the full DNC at the urging of the Obama White House).
Superdelegates are widely viewed by the grassroots as unfair and "insider politics" at its finest. The superdelegates resent this and have repeatedly claimed that they are just there to guide the process, offer history and perspective, and to make sure that someone like Donald Trump doesn't get elected. They claim repeatedly that they have never affected the outcome of an election. They also offer explanations for their existence, such as they were created to allow the grassroots to have a voice in the party because the grassroots doesn't have to run for a delegate position against someone like the Democrat Senator from their state, where they would have a slim chance of winning. While this is true, it is not why supers were created, it's a side effect. In fact, here is evidence that the reason the supers were created was to keep the grassroots from having so much influence on the nomination process. The DNC had started moving away from caucuses and towards primaries after the infamous 1968 DNC Convention in Chicago, to allow the grassroots easier access to participate. Once they recognized that the people were not picking the candidates that they wanted, they created the Hunt Commission. The Hunt Commission created superdelegates, the unpledged party leaders who would have a greater influence over the nomination. Here is a fascinating article from In These Times, where the author reviewed Hunt Commission transcripts at the National Archives. In the transcripts, Carrin Patman of Texas stated, "I would like to ask these experts what we might start considering very early that could hopefully stop or even roll back the proliferation of presidential primaries."
What is the future of Superdelegates? The DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee is currently considering drastically reducing or even eliminating superdelegates for the 2020 election. They will make their recommendations at the end of June 2018 and the full DNC will make their decision on August 25, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.
My opinion: While supers often state that they never affect the outcome of an election, I would like to push back on that claim. In 2016, many new voters were energized by Senator Bernie Sanders campaign and voted for him in the West Virginia primary. Sen. Sanders won every county and received 18 pledged delegates. Hillary Clinton won 36% of the vote and received 11 pledged delegates. West Virginia had 8 superdelegates. All eight supers used their unpledged vote for Hillary Clinton. The final count was Bernie Sanders 18 delegates, Hillary Clinton 19 delegates. Clinton won West Virginia without winning one county. Now, imagine you were a Bernie supporter that had previously been skeptical of politics yet energized by Bernie Sanders? What did this person learn? They learned that their vote didn't count, that the people in charge always get their way, even if it is completely contrary to what the people want. The next question is, did this person come out to vote in the general election in November? Maybe, but many did not. They gave up because they learned that their vote didn't count. Eight supers completely undermined the outcome of the primary. The result in West Virginia? A full Republican takeover of the state House and Senate who are anti-tax, anti-government, anti-union and anti-environment. Our Democratic Governor changed his registration BACK to Republican 9 months later and the horror began - taking of people's land for fossil fuels, weakening of environmental standards, weakening unions and passing every ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) bill that they can get their hands on. People in West Virginia are suffering and I hold the superdelegates partially responsible for it. Their games have down ballot consequences and they need to recognize that when they are playing the, "What can I get out of this?" political game.
West Virginia's Superdelegate Disaster:
The Superdelegate Decision: