In 1981, after the contentious 1980 Democratic national convention, former Democratic Governor James Hunt of North Carolina was appointed to chair a party commission that bears his surname. The Hunt Commission recommended the establishment of so-called “super-delegates,” which now constitute about 20% of the voting delegates at the national convention this coming summer. About 80% of the voting delegates are bound to vote on the first ballot for the candidates who qualified to receive delegates in each state’s primaries or caucuses. The super-delegates represent party leaders and elected officials (PLEO); for example, all Democratic congressmen and senators automatically qualify as super-delegates, as well as former Presidents and other important current or former party leaders such as governors, former majority and minority leaders, etc.
It did not take long for the wisdom of the concept of super-delegates to play out; in fact, the presidential election of 1984 was instructive in this regard. The two main players for the Democratic nomination were Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. Over the course of the many months that define the primary and caucus process, there were some rather serious questions raised about Gary Hart’s character. Rumors of extra-marital affairs dogged him; these were reinforced by revelations about his being separated from his wife on at least two occasions. Serious questions arose about his tact and judgment after he made ill-advised negative comments about the state of New Jersey before the primary there, costing him a win in that state. Therefore, just before the party convention, the party’s super-delegates became very concerned about Hart’s viability as a candidate. Late in the game, they decided to vote heavily for Mondale, thereby tipping the balance in his favor.
Though Mondale eventually lost the general election, the value of the party having a late-in-the-game option for choosing the party’s nominee cannot be overstated, as further revelations about Hart and his extramarital affair on the yacht named “Monkey Business” were soon to follow. One can easily imagine that the current Republican establishment would love to have a similar super-delegate set-up right now to avert a Trump nomination. Unfortunately for the Republican establishment, they do not have a similar arrangement. The Republicans grant only 3 super-delegates to each state. All 3 are state party representatives and are bound on the first ballot to vote for the primary winner of their state. If those super-delegates had the independence of Democratic super-delegates and their higher numbers, they could easily move before the convention to deny an unpalatable candidate like Trump a first ballot majority. In summary, the Democratic Party wisely has given itself a fail-safe option. The Republicans have no such option at a time when they are desperate for one.
There are parallels also between the Democrats’ super-delegate arrangement and the sound thinking that undergirds the Constitution’s establishment of 2-year terms in the House of Representatives and the 6-year terms (on a 2-year rotational basis) of the Senate. Under this arrangement, the Framers attempted to establish a balance between representatives who represent the current, prevailing political will of the People—the House with their much shorter terms—and the ability of the other half of Congress—the Senate with much its longer terms—to be allowed to have a more distant, objective view of popular trends that may prove to be wrong in the long run. Clearly, the understandable and correct bias in the presidential primary season is 80% in favor of the current will of the people as expressed in the voting in the primaries and caucuses, but the super-delegate arrangement wisely allows experienced party members the autonomy to exercise a fail-safe option should troubling revelations arise during the vetting process of the primary season; furthermore, unforeseen concerns about health or judgment may also arise about candidates. The current super-delegate arrangement in the Democratic Party enhances the party’s attempt to field the best possible candidate.
Clearly, the Sanders campaign calls into question the wisdom of the super-delegate arrangement, as most super-delegates currently back Hillary Clinton. It should be noted, however, that Thomas “Tad” Devine—one of Sanders’ top advisers—was one of the architects of the current super-delegate system in the early 1980’s. Sanders’ backers can frequently be heard criticizing the Democratic Party, somehow believing that the current party leaders have rigged the system against Bernie. The fact is that the current super-delegate system is over 33 years old. Perhaps some of this anger is explainable by the fact that although he is in his 75th year, Bernie Sanders has only been a Democrat for about 10 months now and is not as aware of the party rules as a 40-year Democrat like Hillary Clinton. Perhaps this ignorance of party rules and procedures also helps explain why the Clinton campaign has funneled over $18 million “downstream” to Democratic House and Senate candidates to help them get re-elected, whereas the Sanders campaign has funneled exactly zero funds downstream. To whom will these downstream candidates be more loyal when they cast their super-delegate votes?
The current super-delegate arrangement of the Democratic Party has withstood the test of time. It wisely grants a large bias of 80% to primary delegates who are bound to reflect the will of the people as expressed in the primary voting results in each state. Employing thinking reflective of the Founding Fathers of the Constitution in attempting to balance the current will of the People with the detached, objective view of experienced party leaders, the 20% of votes represented by Democratic super-delegates provide a safety net. They can also be employed to reflect the popular will under most circumstances (as they did with Barack Obama at the 2008 convention) or they can be used to act independently. If unforeseen circumstances arise over the course of a long primary season that may reveal troubling issues pertaining to a presidential candidate (as in the Gary Hart candidacy of 1984), the Democrats can exercise a fail-safe option to neutralize that threat. It should be abundantly evident that many Republicans now wish they had such an option to use against the obnoxious candidacy of Donald Trump.