Superdelegates and the Democratic Party

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The presidential nomination process for the Democratic Party includes a large number of delegates who are not chosen as part of the primary and causes process. These people are called superdelegates.

Of the 2,382 delegates that the eventual Democratic nominee will need to earn in the 2016 election, 712 are superdelegates. (The number has varied through the years.) This group includes every sitting Representative, Senator, and governor, as long as that person is a member of the Democratic Party. Because the current President, Barack Obama, and the current Vice-president, Joe Biden, are also Democratic, they are included in the group of superdelegates.

Also in the group of superdelegates are members of the Democratic National Committee, such as mayors and county executives (again, as long as they are members of the Democratic Party), and certain other select Democratic Party officials.

Unlike other delegates who are pledged to vote for a certain candidate based on primary or caucuse resulsts, superdelegates can cast their votes at the national nominating convention for whichever candidate they want. Superdelegates have the option of revealing their preference before the convention.

Superdelegates were created in 1982 as a way to avoid the kind of division created by a contentious 1980 election campaign, in which Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy ran a spirited challenge to the incumbent President, Jimmy Carter. The convention resulted in a renomination for Carter, but many Democrats did not vote for Carter in the end, and the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan, won what turned out to be a close election.

The idea of the superdelegates was to bring the party together. The theory is that the superdelegates are the party elite, the ones who helped write the party’s platform, and so they would have a vested interest in seeing the party succeed in the general election. In practice, so far, the superdelegates have affirmed the nomination of the candidate who has won the most pledged delegates throughout the primary and caucus process.

Superdelegates are free to announce their preferred candidate any time they wish. They are not bound by an announcement that takes place earlier than the national nominating convention. Early in the 2004 presidnetial campaign, Democratic nominee Howard Dean announced that he had received support from many of the party’s superdelegates; yet at the nomination convention, superdelegates voted en masse for John Kerry, who had won the most delegates in the Democratic Party primaries and caucuses. A similar situation occurred in 2008, when Hillary Clinton announced the support of a majority of superdelegates; by the time of the national convention, however, Barack Obama had won enough primary-caucus delegates to secure the nomination and so received a majority of the superdelegate votes as well.

The Republican Party provides for 150 superdelegates, three unpledged delegates from each state. These are generally the state Republican Party chairman and two residents of that state who are also members of the Republican National Committee. These three superdelegates are generally viewed as being pledged delegates, though, and so, by and large, vote for the candidate who got the most votes in that state’s primary or caucus.

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David White