Texas Liberal

All People Matter

History Of The Superdelegate

What is a Superdelegate in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination? What is the history behind the awarding of these delegates?

A  “superdelegate” is a party leader, an elected official or otherwise, who is made an automatic delegate at the party nominating convention. This person is not required to win his or her place in a primary or in a caucus. They have a spot at the convention no matter what. 

The so-called superdelegate was created as a “reform” within the Democratic nominating process for the 1984 elections. Party leaders felt that the process had gotten away from them and was overly geared to primary voters and caucus-goers. 

According to Congressional Quarterly’s Guide To U.S. Elections

“This reform had two main goals. First Democratic leaders would participate in the nomination decision at the convention. Second, they wanted to ensure that these uncommitted party leaders could play a major role in selecting the presidential nominees if no candidate was a clear front-runner.”

Isn’t is great that Democratic party leaders had to be given a free pass instead of earning a place to take an active part in the nominating process?

The superdelegate idea was in in many ways a roundabout response to a process set in motion by liberal party activists who felt shut out at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Vice President Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota in 1968 was the last major party nominee to win the nomination without entering most of the primaries.

A commission was set up led by Senator George McGovern of South Dakota that led to an opening of the process and to more primaries. This openness was the trend in the 1972 and 1976 nominating races for the Democrats and Senator McGovern benefited from these new rules in his own successful 1972 nomination bid.    

For 1984, the party leadership reasserted some authority with superdelegates. It was a “reform” that was really a step backwards.   

Superdelegates in 2008 are Democratic members of the House and Senate, Democratic Governors, and members of the Democratic National Committee. Al Gore and Bill Clinton are also superdelegates. 

There are approximately 800 superdelegates of the 2125 delegates needed to win the nomination.

In 1984, four of five superdelegates supported Walter Mondale of Minnesota (photo below) over Senator Gary Hart of Colorado. This despite the fact Vice President Mondale won 37.8% of all primary votes in 1984 against the 36.1% won by Senator Hart. The party establishment was beyond Mr. Mondale regardless of how people were voting in the primaries.


Since 1984, the percentage of superdelegates has increased. It was 14% of all delegates in 1984 and is nearly 20% today.

As I write this in February, more superdelegates are pledged to Senator Hillary Clinton of New York than to Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.   

Superdelegates can change their minds if they wish. They can do anything they want.

It’s like some sort of House of Lords. ( Illustration below.)

This process is undemocratic. Delegates should be elected by rank-and-file members of the party. If a sitting Governor or Senator can’t win a spot in a primary or a caucus, what type of legitimacy as a popular leader does such a person have?   

I hope that at the least, superdelgates will reflect the wishes of the district or state they represent, or, for those not currently holding any political office, the state or local area they come from. 

2008 Democratic Convention Watch is a blog doing a good job tracking who superdelegates are supporting.  

Texas Liberal is leading the way in politcal history blogging in 2008.

February 7, 2008 - Posted by | Books, Campaign 2008, Political History, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Thanks for this interesting post. What I’d like to know is what caused the party to bring in the superdelegates in the first place? What event(s) demonstrated a need for reform? Some have suggested that the nomination of George McGovern was the catalyst, because he wasn’t popular with the party establishment. Others have surmised that, in a close race, the party elite wanted to be able to choose a centrist candidate who they felt would have a better chance in the general election. These question also play into the issue of why the percentage of superdelegates keeps rising. Lastly, I’m wondering if the party has ever considered making the superdelegate votes anonymous, so that they could enjoy the same privacy and freedom from undue influence as the rest of us voters.

    Comment by Steve | February 8, 2008

  2. Steve—Thanks for the comment. I’ve added a paragraph to the post that fills in the gap you mention about why this happened in the first place.

    As for superdelegate numbers rising, its easy enough for insiders to reward other insiders with an unearned seat at the table.

    I don’t imagine delegate votes could ever be anonymous. And anyway, it’s likely already undemocratic enough already to suit party leaders.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | February 8, 2008

  3. Thanks for the historical perspective. It makes Speaker Pelosi’s comments in this recent CNN article flat-out wrong, or at the least, misleading: http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/02/08/dem.delegates/index.html

    Given the number of Democratic politicians (superdelegates) in the state of Washington who have made early declarations of support (mostly for Clinton), Senator Pelosi’s comments to the effect that they will be “attuned to what’s happening in their states” remains to be seen. If we’re going to stick with caucuses, it should be a level playing field.

    Comment by Mary Ann Kae | February 9, 2008

  4. Mary Ann–I read the link you included and I think you are right. Ms. Pelosi says the idea was to not have rank-and-file Democrats compete with party leaders and office holders.

    Well…why not limit the number of elected officials who can be delegates and encourage community-level party activists to become delegates? Why must elected officials and big wigs they get a spot? Isn’t enough to be in Congress or to be Governor? Share the wealth.

    And you’re also right about how many committed early. How is that being responsive?

    Thanks for the comment and please keep reading the blog.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | February 9, 2008

  5. Neil,

    I took the liberty of lifting some of the text out of your blog on superdelegates to craft a resolution for caucus reform, which I submitted in my precinct. I don’t think it will go anywhere. I’d like to send you a cc for your perusal, and get permission to send it along to any websites and bloggers who might be interested in spreading it around. Could you send me an email address where I could send it, rather than posting it here (unless you’d prefer!) If a groundswell of support for caucus reform gets going, the Democrats might not be able to stop it.

    I was shocked to discover that despite the record turnout for the Washington caucus, it still represents only 10% of the electorate. My personal preference would be for primaries only across the country. Maybe even a national primary day, so we don’t have to suffer through the protracted and expensive campaign process we have now.

    Comment by Mary Ann | February 11, 2008

  6. Mary Ann–Please use the post for whatever good purpose you propose.

    The caucus system does seem to exclude many people.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | February 12, 2008

  7. I can not think of anything worse in our political arena than that democracy would be undermined. At best super-delegates will echo the voice of we the people, at worse it give leaders of the Democratic Party the means to undermind the people voting for their choice of President. Therefore, it is my sincere opinion that there be an end to super-delegates as it is a potential precurser to corruption in our political process.

    Comment by JWH | February 13, 2008

  8. JWH–Thanks for the comment. I agree that superdelegates are more likely to reflect the needs of insiders than the wishes of the people.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | February 13, 2008

  9. The rationale for the decision to have superdelegates was not specifically the nomination of McGovern, which was unpopular with party insiders, or the nomination of Carter, who ran as an “outsider”, “change Washington” candidate, but the fact that both of those candidates performed so poorly. McGovern lost the general election terribly, and Carter, when no Democrat could possibly lose the election in the wake of Watergate, manages to look good only in comparison to 43 nowadays. He did so badly that Ted Kennedy opposed him in the primaries in 1980, and nearly won… that’s when the party decided that they would like to shade against the will of the voters, the will of the voters having basically shown an extremely poor track record in its less than two decades in existence (caucuses before that, not primaries).

    Comment by Keith | February 14, 2008

  10. Keith–What about the support among superdelegates for Mr. Mondale who lost 49 states? Yes…insider were tired of big losses on Election day. But they were also not happy to lose control of the process.

    The one time so far the superdelegates mattered, Democrats got stomped.

    Thank you for the comment.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | February 14, 2008

  11. I hear you, and I definitely agree that a driving force was for the insiders to take control. I’m just not sure that’s such a bad thing. The Republican party has hardly come up with a slew of winners since they moved from caucuses towards more primaries either.

    “In 1844 the Democrats were split
    the three nominees for the presidential candidate
    were Martin VanBuren,
    A former president
    and an abolitionist.
    James Buchanan, a moderate.
    Lewis Cass, a general and expansionist.
    From Nashville came a dark horse riding up,
    It was James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump.”

    One of my favorite presidents. Maybe we need a compromise candidate like Al Gore!

    Comment by Keith | February 15, 2008

  12. Thank you for the history in your comment.

    Harry Truman liked Polk.

    I don’t think we’ll see a deadlocked convention. There would be so much to lose from a fight that went that long.

    Please keep reading the blog.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | February 15, 2008

  13. Has the constitutionality of the superdelegate creation
    ever been contested?

    If yes, whe?

    If no, why not?

    Comment by Dominic Cossi | February 16, 2008

  14. Dominic—Nominating fights are pretty much left up to the parties. I don’t know the law as well as I should but in the past parties have been seen as private groups with a right to proceed pretty much as they see fit. If someone has a more form grasp on the law I’d wlcome the info, but I can’t think of any reason superdelegates would be illegal.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | February 16, 2008

  15. Thanks for the blog. I lifted some of the info for a post on a bb. I’ll also be sending a link to your blog to people that believe that the only point of superdelegates is to insure one candidate will get the required delegates to win the nomination.

    Thanks again!

    Comment by themoderateamerican | February 18, 2008

  16. That’s very nice of you–Thank you.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | February 18, 2008

  17. Brilliant piece. Nicely presented.

    Comment by dkerr01 | March 7, 2008

  18. Thank you for the nice comment.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | March 8, 2008

  19. […] Here is a history of the superdelegate. […]

    Pingback by Superdelegates Have Option To Deny Either Candidate A Majority « Texas Liberal | March 21, 2008

  20. […] Now look at this remote factory farm. It’s an alien landscape sucking up all our water. This reminds me of the soulless Sanchez and Kirk team from 2002. It might even remind me a bit of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 superdelegate -laden campaign. ( Please click here for a Texas Liberal History of the Superdelegate.) […]

    Pingback by Obama & Noriega Seem More Organic Than Sanchez & Kirk In 2002 « Texas Liberal | June 28, 2008

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