Twilight of the Superdelegates

Desperate for unity, the Democrats have clipped the superdelegates’ wings. It's another win for the Bernie wing of the party.

Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders at an April 2017 DNC event in Mesa, AZ. Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia

Late last month, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) voted nearly unanimously to restrict the ability of so-called “superdelegates” to influence the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination process. The product of two years of work by the Unity Reform Commission (URC), the new rules stipulate that superdelegates — unpledged DNC members and other party elites — will no longer be allowed to vote on the first convention ballot unless the nominee has already secured a majority of pledged delegates.

Whether the new rules will significantly affect the 2020 nomination process is unclear. If there are multiple rounds of convention balloting — something that hasn’t happened since 1952 — superdelegates will still have the right to weigh in. But what it guarantees is that activists’ worst nightmare — a tight nomination contest being decided by unelected party elites — will not happen. The new rule eliminates any chance that superdelegates could effectively select the Democratic nominee.

So with the dust now settled, what are we to make of this change? Why did the vast majority of the party establishment willingly reduce its own power? And what does it tell us about the ongoing struggle of Sanders and his internal allies to transform the Democratic Party?

A Brief History of Superdelegates

Superdelegates are a relatively recent development in the Democratic Party’s nearly two-century history. Introduced at the start of the 1984 presidential nomination cycle, superdelegates were a way of attracting party elites back to the national conventions after internal reforms scared them away.

Prior to the 1969–72 McGovern-Fraser Commission — and the rise of the “New Politics” insurgents who powered it — the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating conventions operated under the tight supervision of party officials and officeholders, who brokered a suitable nominee in the fabled smoke-filled rooms of the convention hall. McGovern-Fraser reformers stripped party elites of the special right to attend the convention as unpledged brokers, requiring them to declare themselves for a candidate and run for a delegate spot just like anyone else. So they stopped coming.

As party elites’ attendance at conventions waned, so did the Democratic Party’s electoral fortunes. Aside from Jimmy Carter (no favorite of party leaders), Democratic presidential aspirants went down in landslide defeats. Party elites thought they knew why: they’d been shut out.

In 1984, the DNC issued a new rule providing party leaders and elected officials with “automatic delegate” status. These “superdelegates,” as they were called, were given the right to attend national conventions and cast ballots for the party nominee regardless of the outcome of primaries. Their mere presence, the thinking went, would influence the outcome of the nomination contest —moderating candidates’ tone and forcing them to ingratiate themselves to the party establishment.

But the introduction of superdelegates didn’t cause the Democrats’ star to rise. The party suffered crushing defeats in both 1984 and 1988, first to Ronald Reagan and then to George H.W. Bush. Evidently, correlation didn’t equal causation.

Still, the superdelegate category kept expanding, jumping from its initial 14 percent to a historic high of 19 percent in 2008. It fell back to 15 percent in 2016, the year it would come under the harshest criticism since its adoption.

The Advocacy Party

Even with superdelegates, the formal party apparatus hadn’t been able to control its nomination process like it did in the old days. By the time the superdelegates were introduced, the Democratic Party had become what could be called an “advocacy party” — dependent on a dense network of donors, interest groups, advocacy organizations, think tanks, political action committees, and movement activists for its activities.

Rather than a restoration of the old, smoke-filled regime, superdelegates represented the party establishment’s adaptation to the advocacy party model. They put themselves forward as a distinct group with its own interests that deserved representation, just like the AFL-CIO or real estate developers.

In the aftermath of the 2016 debacle, however, even that rationale fell apart. Hillary Clinton was the overwhelming favorite among superdelegates — increasing the sense that a coronation rather than a nominating process was afoot — and she still lost to the weakest general election candidate in modern history. Party elites quickly found themselves in the crosshairs, and failed to provide a legitimate explanation as to why they deserved special, unbound voting rights in selecting the presidential nominee.

With this in mind it is less of a surprise that DNC members — who are all superdelegates — voted nearly unanimously to restrict their own influence. It was a symbolic concession. Eleventh-hour protestations by members of the DNC’s Black Caucus — including former DNC chair Donna Brazile’s suggestion that the new rules were a form of racial “disenfranchisement” — only demonstrated the vacuity of the case for continuing the party elites’ special group status.

At the same time, the superdelegate reforms did go beyond what many reformers and outside observers were expecting. While some Sanders backers on the URC had pushed hard for the abolition of superdelegates altogether, the URC’s final report called for the DNC to trim the category by 60 percent. Last month’s reforms were closer to the Sanders wing’s demands, effectively insulating the nomination process from their direct influence while leaving the category itself in place. Party leaders and officials will still be allowed to openly endorse candidates during the primaries (just like everyone else), but it won’t have any bearing on delegate counts.

What is surprising about this turn of events is that superdelegates did not technically affect the outcome of the 2016 primary race. Sanders supporters were justifiably outraged at how superdelegates hampered his chances. But in terms of numbers, superdelegates did not decide the race, and have always cast their votes with the majority of primary and caucus voters.

Yet, what the rule change shows is that party elites, including the DNC and its chair Tom Perez, are willing to counter the perception of undemocratic practices inside the party.

Why? Party unity. Once the midterms are concluded this November, the 2020 presidential contest will begin in earnest. Democratic officials and officeholders see a golden opportunity to use the Trump presidency as a springboard back to national power. And badly divided parties tend to lose elections.

Party elites often walk a fine line between, on the one hand, suppressing insurgency and dividing the party and on the other, fostering unity by placating dissident factions. In the contest for the DNC chair in early 2017, the surprising amount of grassroots support for Keith Ellison compelled Perez to create a new position — deputy chair — to avoid alienating Sanders supporters. Looking ahead to 2020, the majority of prospective candidates have adopted portions of the Sanders platform.

The superdelegate reforms are a continuation of this dynamic.

The Sanders Insurgency

The effective neutralization of the superdelegates shows the party establishment’s inability to reassert their prerogatives, unchecked by other factions. But, as this latest episode reveals, the party isn’t really “theirs” at all. For better or for worse, the advocacy party doesn’t belong to anyone. This makes it open to well-organized insurgents, who now face even lower procedural barriers to entry. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it, “a lot of these ‘unassailable’ political machines are [just] shells.”

At the same time, it also means that the party isn’t “ours” either. The Democratic Party, once relatively closed and dominated by its elite managers, has been opened by generations of left activism, which extracted reforms from pragmatic elites. An open party is arguably preferable to a closed one. But a party that outsources many of its activities to advocacy networks, think tanks, donor consortia, and well-organized activist groups also has severe shortcomings. Without a central body to coordinate their actions or forge their demands into a coherent political vision and a cohesive agenda, the advocacy party produces a siloed politics that empowers centrally placed actors, like Democratic presidents, to dominate the party.

On top of that, big donors continue to exercise enormous influence in the party. To be sure, there is more ideological diversity to this group than is often assumed. Democratic mega-donors George Soros and Tom Steyer both gave boatloads to Florida gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillums, who received the endorsement of Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution. And like DNC officials, most donors also prioritize winning elections. But we can be sure that bank executives aren’t going to fund a party that supports, say, socializing finance.

The Democratic Party nevertheless remains a terrain of struggle, and in the absence of a central coordinator, there’s a relative vacuum in the scramble for programmatic definition. The real question is whether the Sanders wing and its social base can provide new organizations and resources that can redefine the Democratic Party’s program rather than becoming just another interest group in the advocacy party.

Over the last two years, Sanders has adeptly exploited the fissures within the Democratic Party. While the party will not be transformed into a vehicle for socialist transformation anytime soon, the rule changes show that Sanders supporters in the party are having a small, but significant impact.