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Superdelegates don't determine the Democratic nominee

They've never determined the Democratic nominee and they didn't this year. Clinton won the nomination any way you slice it.
Shadows loom over supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at his 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary night rally in Concord, N.H., Feb. 9, 2016. (Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Shadows loom over supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at his 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary night rally in Concord, N.H., Feb. 9, 2016.

The news Monday night that Hillary Clinton has enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination did her no favors. It was commitments from the party insiders known as superdelegates that put Clinton over the top. That’s giving added fuel to the claims of Bernie Sanders supporters that the process is rigged in favor of the establishment candidate and against his insurgent bid—just at a time when Clinton needs more urgently than ever to unite the party.

The ongoing relevance of superdelegates in the race has triggered calls, including from Elizabeth Warren, to abolish them entirely.

So it’s worth making clear that though superdelegates may have affected the timing of the nomination news, Clinton isn’t winning the title because of them. She's way ahead in votes and pledged delegates—that is, those picked by voters—too. Take any reasonable system for allotting delegates, and she wins.  

Indeed, for all the controversy over the role of superdelegates—not just this year, but also in the 2008 Obama-Clinton race—they’re really something of a red herring. Superdelegates have never determined the nominee, and they’re unlikely ever to do so. 

In fact, at a time when Democrats face actual anti-democratic new laws, in the form of restrictions on voting aimed at making it harder for their voters to cast a ballot, focusing on superdelegates seems particularly misguided. 

To understand why superdelegates exist at all, it helps to go all the way back to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, at which the party establishment chose Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the nominee, angering grassroots activists who felt they’d been shut out of the process, and fatally splitting the party. In response, Democrats opened up the primary process in the early '70s, requiring all delegates to be chosen by voters, not party leaders. That’s when the modern primary system came about.

But by the early '80s, there was a feeling that the cure had been worse than the disease. In the two elections after the reforms were put in place, Democrats nominated insurgent candidates—George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. McGovern suffered a landslide defeat. Carter beat a weak President Ford, then, after four mostly unsuccessful years in the White House, was crushed by Ronald Reagan in 1980, leaving him a deeply unpopular figure in the party.

So in 1982, the Democratic National Committee created superdelegates, with the primary goal of handing a bit more control of the nominating process to party insiders. From now on, sitting Democratic members of Congress, governors, big city mayors and a few other party bigwigs, including the president, if he or she was a Democrat, would all be delegates, meaning they would get a vote at the convention for who should be the party’s presidential nominee. The new rules, reported the New York Times in 1981, "seemed infused with a desire to deny future nominations to political reincarnations of the Jimmy Carter of 1976."

In the 1984 election, superdelegates helped put the establishment candidate, Walter Mondale, over the top. But Mondale, like Clinton this year, had more pledged delegates—that is, delegates elected by voters—than either of his rivals, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson Jr. Virtually any broadly democratic system would have given him the nomination. 

It wasn’t until 2008 that the issue of superdelegates arose again. In the winter and early spring of that year, as Clinton and Barack Obama were battling it out, it looked possible that superdelegates, most of whom at the time favored Clinton, might tip the scales in her favor. But as it became clear that Obama was going to win more pledged delegates than Clinton, the superdelegates responded by gradually moving into his camp. They appear to have recognized that it would be disastrous for party insiders to be seen to be taking the nomination away from the candidate who was the choice of the party’s voters.

That brings us to this year, when the same understanding seems to prevail. It’s Sanders, ironically – in a desperate effort to appear still viable—who has been making the case that superdelegates could still hand him the nomination. He points to the fact that he has better head-to-hear numbers against Donald Trump than Clinton does to argue that they should do so.

Sanders has stuck to this line even since NBC News and others called the race for Clinton Monday night, insisting that whatever they might tell the press, superdelegates aren’t officially pledged to any candidate until the convention.

“Our job from now until the convention is to convince those superdelegates that Bernie is by far the strongest candidate against Donald Trump,” a Sanders spokesman said in a statement.

But here’s the thing: Sanders can say what he wants. He isn’t making any headway.

That’s why, in the end, superdelegates just don’t really matter that much. The party may once have hoped that superdelegates could help ensure a more electable nominee, or one more acceptable to Democratic power-brokers. But times change.

For numerous reasons, perhaps chief among them the media’s coverage of the primary process as a series of popular votes, there’s now an expectation in both parties that the nominee will be the choice of voters.

Even Republican elites, who in Trump really do appear stuck with a nominee who could badly wound their party, understand that conspiring to wrest the nomination away from him would leave their party even weaker. Except in rare cases where new developments make a prospective nominee untenable—say, an indictment of Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server, which appears highly unlikely—it’s very hard to conceive of superdelegates being determinative.  

It's more useful to think of superdelegates today like members of the electoral college. Yes, in theory, presidential electors can vote for whoever they want, just as the Founders intended for them to do. And in 2004, one Minnesota presidential elector did so, voting for John Edwards instead of John Kerry, who had won the state. But in practice, when it matters for the outcome, they can't and don't, because doing so would conflict too sharply with prevailing expectations of fairness. In effect, we've overruled the Founders without having to pass a constitutional amendment. In the same way, Democrats have largely overruled the party elders who created superdelegates back in 1982.  

Of course, none of this is to say superdelegates shouldn't be abolished. Even if in practice they never affect the winner of the race, there's a case to be made that their continued existence is just too undemocratic in principle for a major political party —especially the one that claims equality as a core value —to tolerate.

If Sanders supporters or anyone else is thinking about how to make the process meaningfully fairer and more democratic, there are far better places to start.