By Rachel Blevins
An elite group of voters called “superdelegates” makes up about a third of the total delegates needed to win the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Their unique power has led some to criticize their role as undemocratic.
Timothy Nokken, graduate studies director in Texas Tech’s Department of Political Science, said the Democratic Party’s superdelegates include current and former elected officials, members of Congress and governors.
Only the Democrats have superdelegates, who became part of the presidential selection process in the 1980s, according to Nokken.
“They get a vote on who they want to be president,” he said. “The important thing … is that they’re what we call ‘unaffiliated’ or ‘unattached,’ which means they can vote for anyone they want.”
Regular delegates, on the other hand, are allocated to each candidate based on his or her performance in each state’s primary or caucus.
The creation of superdelegates was “pretty novel” and “pretty reasonable,” Nokken said, allowing the party to have some control in situations like the Republican nomination, where Donald Trump is the frontrunner and political elites are considering a contested convention.
“The motivation behind creating superdelegates was, I think, to essentially avoid what the Republicans are going through now,” Nokken said.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders, however, dislike the arrangement. Chad Hasty, the host of the Chad Hasty Show on KFYO News Talk Radio, said the Democratic race would be much closer without superdelegates.
“If you took superdelegates away, Hillary would have 1,280 delegates and Sanders would have 1,030,” Hasty said. “If the superdelegates all sat on the sidelines, then the race on the Democratic side would be just as close, if not closer, than the race on the Republican side.”
Seth McKee, an associate professor of political science at Texas Tech, believes that even though superdelegates were created to give the Democratic Party more control over the nomination, they do not have the power to change the course of the 2016 election.
“There was a lot of talk about them having an effect, perhaps, in 2008, but they didn’t,” McKee said. “One of the reasons why is because Obama had gained an early lead in pledged delegates when he was running against Hillary in 2008, and he never let up on that lead, even though it was a very close contest.”
The impact of superdelegates varies, Nokken said, noting that in 2008, Obama received the majority of their support, even though he had a narrow lead in support from regular delegates.
“In theory, they can be pivotal,” Nokken said. “In reality, they generally kind of follow the popular will. So this is one of the things you’re hearing this year. Sanders’s people are saying ‘Oh, the superdelegates should follow the popular will,’ and a lot of them kind of remain uncommitted until it’s clear how the race is going to play out.”
Hasty said media do not focus on superdelegates as much as they should.
“These superdelegates can pledge whenever they want, and they’re not bound to anyone, so they can switch sides at any time,” Hasty said. “But just about all of them came out in support of Hillary Clinton before the race heated up. If they would have truly stayed on the sidelines, I think some of them would be split right now.”
McKee said many superdelegates tend to vote for the candidate their district supports, in hopes of getting re-elected.
“Superdelegates are not fools, to the extent that so many of them are elected politicians,” he said. “They don’t cross their own voters.”
An ABC News analysis found that 67 of the 717 superdelegates, who make up almost a third of the 2,383 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination, are former or current lobbyists. Of these, 41 have already committed to supporting Clinton and only two have committed to supporting Sanders.
Nokken described the number of lobbyist superdelegates as “minuscule,” and said he is not surprised by their presence because many are former politicians.
“One of the most common jobs of former elected officials—especially former members of Congress—is to go work for PR firms or law firms in the district,” Nokken said. “I think it reflects less the fact that they’re lobbyists and more the fact that they’re former members of Congress, in all likelihood.”
McKee said he believes Sanders’s status as the “outsider candidate” hurts his chances of gaining the support of superdelegates.
“When you think about the Democratic Party, and where their strength is, it’s [in] the congressional districts where you have a lot of members of Congress,” McKee said. “[Clinton] is going to do a lot better than [Sanders], to the extent that a lot of minorities are Democratic, and he’s not winning nearly as many districts as she is, so those superdelegates, again, would disproportionately favor [Clinton].”
Hasty understands why some Democrats are upset about the power and the ties of superdelegates and also why the Republican establishment envies the setup.
“I’m pretty sure that some in the Republican Party wish they had superdelegates right now,” Hasty said. “If that were to happen, then Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush would probably be leading. It definitely wouldn’t be Trump, and it definitely wouldn’t be Cruz.”