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A superdelegate is a position of super privilege bestowed upon certain voting delegates to the National Democratic Presidential Nominating Convention who are awarded their status outside the ordinary election process. Most are sitting members of congress, governors, big city mayors, party bosses, past elected officials and other high-profile persons.
The superdelegate plan was designed to re-take control of the Democratic party from "extremists" and outsiders that the DNC previously had commissioned George McGovern, through a series of reforms, to recruit into the party apparatus.
“”Put aside the caucus and convention. They have been and will continue to be prostituted to the service of corrupt organization. They answer no purpose further than to give respectable form to political robbery. Abolish the caucus and the convention. Go back to the first principles of democracy; go back to the people. Substitute for both the caucus and the convention a primary election--held under the sanctions of law which prevail at the general elections--where the citizen may cast his vote directly to nominate the candidate of the party with which he affiliates and have it canvassed and returned just as he cast it....Then every citizen will share equally in the nomination of the candidates of his party and attend primary elections as a privilege as well as a duty. It will no longer be necessary to create an artificial interest in the general election to induce voters to attend. Intelligent, well-considered judgement will be substituted for unthinking enthusiasm, the lamp of reason for the torchlight.
|—Bob La Follette|
The superdelegate system was an effort to disempower voters as a result of the rapid expansion of primary elections and voting rights throughout the United States which the party's McGovern-Fraser Commission fostered in the 1970s.
After Ted Kennedy's primary challenge and President Carter's loss to Reagan in 1980, Democrats rewrote their nominating and convention procedures for the fourth time in twelve years. Because a two-way contest in 1984 between Sen. Kennedy and former Vice President Walter Mondale was anticipated,[note 1] the original point of contention between them was over bound delegates which Sen. Kennedy wanted to loosen, while the Mondale machine pushed for a candidate to be able to replace a "disloyal delegate".[note 2]
The Mondale machine, supported by Chairman Jim Hunt and union bosses, more importantly wanted to do something about outsiders and New Left “extremists” they felt had taken over the party. The Mondale and Kennedy machines agreed to do away with portions of the McGovern-Fraser Commission (the "reform movement") that had stripped influence and power from elected government officeholders in the nomination process and paved the way for an "insurgent candidate". The rules the Democratic National Committee (DNC) adopted from Hunt Commission recommendations didn't just allow or encourage incumbents to return, it guaranteed them seats apart from the regular democratic selection process. The Kennedy faction wanted to cut the number from about 800 reserved seats in half, but over the years the base number of other delegates was expanded to meet the target of about 1 in 6 rather than the 1 in 3 originally proposed. Susan Estrich, who was to manage Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign,[note 3] strenuously objected to the plan, and derisively coined the term "super-delegate", whom she claimed would disproportionately be white males. Nevertheless, the idea became rule, and the figure of about 800 positions has held,[note 4] while the requirements for non-elected officeholders chosen outside of the primary and caucus system has only been expanded. The "Old Democrats" had retaken power with a vengeance.
The Hunt Commission (or "counter-reform movement") discarded the proportional allocation rules from the 1970s in favor of winner-take-all. Prior to proportional representation there was the “unit rule”: a delegation had to vote as a unit, now known as “winner-take-all”. McGovern-Fraser scrapped the unit rule in favor of affirmative action, or “proportional representation”, rather than actual votes cast. Today’s “unpledged” superdelegates are party bosses (PLEO - party leader/ elected official) whose cronies, the “pledged delegates”, earn their seats in state machines by working to elect superdelegates in previous elections. Together they function as a unit, wherein the boss makes a deal to throw his weight behind a candidate — a re-creation of the 19th century political machine that Progressive reformers such as Bob La Follette fought to eliminate.
The winner-take-all rules had the embarrassing effect in 1984 of allowing an insurgent candidate to rack up big delegate wins in late primary states. So after 1984 the party brought back "proportional allocation".
When Sen. Kennedy decided not to run in 1984, two insurgent candidates did appear, McGovern's 1972 "New Democrat" campaign manager Sen. Gary Hart, and Jesse Jackson, who was to be the first African-American to win states in a major party primary election for president. Susan Estrich's words were prophetic: the good old white boy network, including Hart, shot him down. The rules were written for a two-way contest between establishment insiders — Mondale and Kennedy, not the three-way slugfest between baby boomers, blacks, and the party Old Guard it came to be.
The original "insurgent candidate" the Hunt Commission referred indirectly to was George McGovern, who after his massive Electoral loss in 1972 was seen as anti-patriotic for his longstanding opposition to President Lyndon Johnson's War which had the effect of dividing the party, and the country, and permanently tarnished Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey's civil rights records, painting these two liberals for posterity as "war hawks".
George Wallace was considered a particularly unwelcome insurgent, considering he had won more states and Electors in 1968 than the party's own nominee in 1972. Wallace had sown disruption and division within the party in the 1964, 1972, and 1976 election cycles which had conflicted with the party's outreach aims culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the affirmative action quotas of the McGovern-Fraser and Mikulski Commissions. Many Southern Democrats by this time already viewed themselves as persona non grata and moved to the Republicans, such as Texas Governor and presidential aspirant John Connally, and others.
Another “insurgent” was Mondale’s old boss, Jimmy Carter, who was first to recognize the new system of manipulating free television air time (and not Ronald Reagan as some believe) with early primary and caucus wins to pile up rapid delegate leads and soak up donor contributions to gain momentum. Carter had scarce contacts with old party bosses and soon buried competitors working under the old system.
It further should be noted, Lyndon LaRouche was considered by some as a viable candidate in 1980 & '84. While his ability to fundraise was impressive if not frightening to some, he never garnered more than 2% in any primary, won no delegates, nor had his name placed in nomination. LaRouche however would also fit the generic term "insurgent candidate" at that time, although his bluster never amounted to any real threat of hijacking the party.
While the McGovern-Fraser reform movement through affirmative action brought women, younger people and minorities into the active party apparatus, it disenfranchised public office holders in order to do so. The counter-reform Hunt Commission brought back party bosses and allowed New Left activists to stay, provided they swore off involvement with anti-establishment extremists and settled into their positions of privilege. Many still used liberal and progressive rhetoric to sell the party to the masses, but covertly pursued a corporatist agenda of competing with Republicans for the big money donations.[note 5]
Superdelegates steal the show, 1984
In 1984 long time party mechanic Walter Mondale entered the convention 40 delegates shy but secured the nomination with superdelegates, a contingent of unelected party insiders he helped write into the rules two years earlier. Superdelegates include sitting and former elected officials who can bypass regular rules governing delegate selection to avoid a grassroots backlash and still enjoy a position of power, prestige, and privilege.
Sen. Gary Hart won 26 states and 1164 delegates at the convention[note 6]. Walter Mondale won 17 states and is said to have amassed about 1600 delegates. Jesse Jackson, the first African-American to win states in a major party primary, questioned the disparity between his vote total and delegate count, but even the New Left turned New Democrat, Gary Hart, echoed the DNC in poo-pooing Jackson's complaint.
By convention time Hart was beating President Reagan by 10 points in national polls, but Mondale won nomination by capturing virtually all the superdelegates. Even at this late date more than 30 years later it is hard to ascertain just exactly how many superdelegate votes there were at this crooked convention. As of April 2016 Wikipedia's 1984 Democratic Primaries page does not even mention the term "superdelegate" anywhere. Multiple original sources put the figure between 550 and 800; The Nation magazine says "roughly 700". Salon says 550. Wikipedia is silent on the matter. Whatever the result, it is patently clear the Democratic establishment was not going to let anyone other than Walter Mondale win the nomination after Sen. Kennedy forfeited.
One state, Wisconsin, is recorded as having voted twice according to the official surviving record in primaries and caucuses. The official record shows Hart winning a plurality, 44% to Mondale's 41%; four days later in a highly unusual move, the "Wisconsin caucus" delivered a 54% to 29% majority (see Wikipedia: results by state) to Mondale in a winner-take-all closed caucus. Prior to the convention Wisconsin Democrats sued over the national party's effort to enforce the new rules formulated by the Winograd Commission targeting an 80-year-old body of law standing behind Wisconsin's primary system. The McGovern-Fraser Commission had used Wisconsin's experience and model to expand primaries into dozens of other states. The DNC lost the suit, but appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and won a reversal. Wisconsin Democrats were forced to abandon the direct primary election and adopt a closed caucus method of delegate selection. The specific language the Democratic National Committee challenged was a 1949 law that required delegates must pledge to vote at their conventions in accordance with results of the primary election. The national party's new rules read, "non-binding advisory presidential preference portion of primaries shall not be considered a step in the delegate selection process.
Because the state legislature had not acted yet, "voters" became "participants" and only allowed to express a non-binding "presidential preference” rather than a legal "vote" with the sanction of law.. Under the DNC's 14th Amendment associational rights, legal voters in Wisconsin and elsewhere were disenfranchised. The reforms of Fighting Bob La Follette, founder of the Progressive movement, were completely undone.
Under the original rules, superdelegates were not supposed to "commit" to a candidate until the convention. Hart says he and his wife personally spoke with all of them to ask for their support, but virtually all were committed to Mondale for 2 years already.
After the Mondale-Hart debacle, another player who ran McGovern's Texas campaign, Bill Clinton, helped organize the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). By 1992 the DLC had taken over the Democratic National Committee, but it failed to reform Mondale's rules of special privileges for party insiders. The DLC, made up originally of New Leftists, as "New Democrats" followed the view of old guard Democrats that the party had been hijacked by extremists, and the new superdelegate structure could be used by a new generation of insiders to keep control. But the New Democrats went a step further: they sold out their leftist idealism for corporate greed.
Sold to the highest bidder, 2008
People United Means Action (or PUMA) began as an effort by supporters of Hillary Clinton who believed that Clinton should have been the Democratic nominee. According to PUMA, "We [were] protesting the 2008 Presidential election because we refuse to support a nominee who was selected by the leadership rather than elected by the voters."
Deja vu all over again, 2016
In Bernie Sanders' 25 years in Washington caucusing with the Democrats, he never once served as a superdelegate -- not until he registered as a Democrat to seek the party's presidential nomination a few months earlier. Although he had voted for party leaders and was awarded preferential committee assignments, his absence as a superdelegate earned him very little, if anything, from his Congressional colleagues for decades of loyalty on votes and bills. Their support overwhelmingly went to a one-term Senator, multi-millionaire, and effective fundraiser who swamped the delegates with cash donations for their own campaigns.
The actual language for the Rules on Delegate Selection for 2016 National Convention as they relate to primary voters is as follows:
the non-binding advisory presidential preference portion of primaries shall not be considered a step in the delegate selection process and is considered detrimental. State parties must take steps to educate the public that a non-binding presidential preference event is meaningless...
Well, it was the DNC after all that argued in the Supreme Court to strike down state laws that mandated delegates be bound to the voters' choice in the primary election results.
Supporters for Sanders and Clinton agreed to abolish 2/3 of superdelegates in July 2016, specifically by stripping them of their free vote autonomy and requiring them to vote with their state results in the primary. 
All but abolished, 2018
By a vote of 27-1, the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to strip superdelegates of their power to vote freely for their candidate of choice. Instead, they must vote the way their states did on the first ballot. This is a gigantic reduction of their power in ways that, should there never be a second ballot, effectively abolishes their authority.
- Bad blood existed between the Humphrey-Mondale and Kennedy machines going back to Humphrey's 1960 Presidential primary campaign. Humphrey later wrote of the Kennedy machine, "underneath the beautiful exterior there was an element of ruthlessness and toughness I had trouble either accepting or forgetting."
- Democratic party convention rule changes. academic.regis.edu . Delegates must march in lockstep.
- Estrich and Dukakis are ranking members in the Massachusetts Kennedy machine which tried to resurrect the 1960 alliance and victory with Texas Democrats on the Dukakis/Bentsen ticket.
- The number varies cycle to cycle based upon the number of Congressional seats, Governorships, and other offices the Democratic party controls, and when vacancies occur during the 90 day window for selection or at the time the Credentials Committee convenes. Superdelegates have been likened to the ruling Nomenklatura of the Soviet era.
- George McGovern, for example, could afford only one nationwide TV commercial aired once a few days before the 1972 election. And the DNC campaign debt for Hubert Humphrey's failed 1968 bid still was not paid off by 1980.
- In a General Election, 26 states would be enough to win the Presidency under the 12th Amendment in the event of an Electoral deadlock.
- Not So Superdelegates, By Ari Berman Editorial, The Nation, January 31, 2008.
- See Broder, below.
- Reforming the Presidential Nomination Process, Steven S. Smith & Melanie J. Springer, p.7, below. www.brookings.edu
- Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden are interesting case studies; by 1980 Fonda was calling herself a "small 'd' democrat" advocating “industrial policy” and “economic democracy” while Hayden was entering the ranks of the “establishment” electoral process through the California Democratic machine. Fonda’s terminology remarkably resembles views espoused by Bernie Sanders, who also began a career in electoral politics outside the Establishment Democratic Party in the early 1980s. Fonda and Hayden became involved in the ‘save the whales’ and Greenpeace movement. By 1979 after the U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam, the Cambodian genocide in which 2 million persons were murdered was well under way, and a popular reaction against the “anti-establishment” New Left peace movement of the 1960s took hold in the United States. Bumper stickers with slogans such as “nuke the whales” became fashionable.
- JANE FONDA OF THE 80'S MELLOWER BUT STILL AN ACTIVIST, By MICHIKO KAKUTANI, New York Times, March 30, 1981.
- See also Russia Iran Disco Suck for a summary of the popular mood in the late 1970s.
- UPI Reporting on the Hunt Commission by ARNOLD SAWISLAK, Jan. 15, 1982.
- Democrats and Unintended Consequences, By David S. Broder, Washington Post, January 17, 1982.
- A History of 'Super-Delegates' in the Democratic Party, Elaine Kamarck, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, 2016.
- Democratic party convention rule changes, academic.regis.edu , above.
- La Follette wanted to do away with caucuses and conventions completely, which he said were "prostituted to the service of corrupt organization" and wanted to rely on the direct open primary so that "nominations of the party will not be the result of 'compromise' or impulse, or evil design...[but rather] the candidates of the majority, honestly and fairly nominated." Robert La Follette's Autobiography, pp. 195-200.
- Reforming the Presidential Nomination Process, Chapter 1 Choosing Presidential Candidates, Steven S. Smith & Melanie J. Springer, eds., Brookings Institute, 2009, pp. 4-8. www.brookings.edu . An excellent and timely synopsis.
- This had the consequence in Democratically controlled states, after the 2000 Florida Recount and calls to abolish the Electoral College, for party bosses to explain why winner-take-all is more beneficial to the state and that "proportional allocation" is a "feel-good" measure that has the effect of cancelling out votes within the same party and state.
- DISPARITY BETWEEN JACKSON'S VOTE AND DELEGATE COUNT VEXES PARTY, By DAVID E. ROSENBAUM, New York Times, May 20, 1984; see also New York Times on April 24, May 11, and May 24 of 1984 for articles reporting Jackson's complaint
- America’s Forgotten Liberal, By RICK PERLSTEINMAY, New York Times, May 26, 2011.
- Zaller, pp. 8-13 pdf.
- Have the Democratic Superdelegates Been Compromised?, 18 February 2016, By The Daily Take Team, The Thom Hartmann Program | Op-Ed. www.truth-out.org
- DNC Chair Says Superdelegates Ensure Elites Don’t Have To Run “Against Grassroots Activists”, Ben Norton - Salon, Saturday, Feb 13, 2016. democraticunderground.com
- See above, DISPARITY BETWEEN JACKSON'S VOTE AND DELEGATE COUNT VEXES PARTY, By DAVID E. ROSENBAUM, New York Times, May 20, 1984.
- Not So Superdelegates, By Ari Berman Editorial, The Nation, January 31, 2008.
- America’s last great convention: Mondale, Jackson & Hart dish to Salon about wild 1984 DNC, Phil Hirschkorn, Salon, Feb 15, 2015.
- Beating Reform:The Resurgence of Parties in Presidential Nominations, 1980-2000, Marty Cohen , David Karol, Hans Noel, Daniel Zaller, University of California Los Angelas, 9/17/01, p. 14 pdf. www.princeton.edu
- What Is A Binding Primary Or Caucus?, MORGAN BRINLEE, February 29 2016. bustle.com
- The ruling did not apply to Republicans which were in compliance with state law and national party rules of delegate selection
- See Democratic Party of U.S. v. Wisconsin ex rel. La Follette, ballotopedia.org
- The 'Superdelegates': Always Intended to be Independent, By Lanny Davis, February 14, 2008. thehill.com/blogs
- Gary Hart: How Superdelegates Did Me In in '84, Interview with Jennifer Parker, ABC News, Feb. 13 2008.
- 2008 Presidential Democratic Primary Election Results, Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. uselectionatlas.org/
- Superdelegate Update, By Lindsay Renick Mayer, Center For Responsive Politics, February 28, 2008. opensecrets.org
- 41 Years. $3 Billion. Inside the Clinton Donor Network, By Matea Gold, Tom Hamburger and Anu Narayanswamy, Washington Post, 19 November 2015.
- How Hillary Clinton Bought the Loyalty of 33 State Democratic Parties, by MARGOT KIDDER, April 1 2016, counterpunch.org .
- Delegate Selection Materials For the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Democratic National Committee, December 15, 2014, Rule 13H, page 20 pdf.