“Superdelegate” has become a dirty word this election cycle.
In every election since 1984, the Democratic Party has used a semi-private, semi-public system to choose its presidential nominee — electing more than three-quarters of delegates through open state conventions, but giving a few hundred Democratic elected officials, Democratic National Committee members, and party elites an automatic vote. Unlike the pledged delegates, who must cast their vote for whichever candidate won their state or district, these so-called superdelegates can back whomever they choose.
This year, the superdelegates sided early and overwhelmingly with Hillary Clinton, and the backlash from supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has been fierce. Sanders himself has blasted the system itself as “absurd” and “unfair,” but has vowed in recent weeks to use superdelegates to win the nomination. His army of supporters has taken matters into their own hands, setting up an online “hit list” with superdelegates’ contact information, and repeatedly calling them, visiting their offices, and bombarding them on social media with pleas to change their allegiance to Sanders. Some superdelegates have reported feeling “threatened” and “harassed”, and the strategy seems to be doing little to help his campaign.
Even if superdelegates were eliminated, Sanders would still trail Clinton in the pledged delegate count.
Meanwhile, the superdelegate-free Republican Party is in the midst of a full-on meltdown over political neophyte Donald Trump winning the nomination, and GOP officials are mulling rule changes to prevent such a result in the future.
To find out more about the past, present, and possible future of superdelegates, ThinkProgress sat down with one.
Elaine Kamarck, who served in the White House from 1993 to 1997, and then became a member of the Democratic National Committee, has been a superdelegate for Massachusetts in the last four presidential elections. A lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a scholar at the Brookings think tank, Kamarck also literally wrote the book on primaries.
Elaine Kamarck: For almost 20 years now, I have paid my own money and taken my own time to serve on the DNC. Four or five times a year I go to the meetings of the Rules Committee. It takes a lot of preparation. I pay for my own hotel. I help the party set out the rules for its convention. And in all four conventions I’ve been in, I’ve always voted for the nominee of the party and the nominee of the party has always been the person who got the most votes.
Like the vast majority of superdelegates, you are supporting Hillary Clinton. Why?
I think she’d be a great president and she really knows what she’s doing, by virtue of her background and the things she’s done in the world. Being a woman helps, I have to say. But it’s really because I’ve seen her up close and personal and she’s tough and she’s got great judgement. Plus, she can work with Republicans. I’m pretty enthusiastic.
Tell us about what happened in 2008, when you and other superdelegates switched from Clinton to Obama.
Most of the superdelegates started out being for Hillary because they knew her. But over the course of the season, Obama showed himself to be a very strong candidate, and he showed himself to be someone capable of being president. His attractiveness grew on people. And even before the last primary, certainly in May, a lot of the superdelegates moved to Obama. And [the Obama campaign] played a two-tiered game. On the one hand they were criticizing it, saying, “Oh, this is undemocratic.” On the other hand, Obama was calling superdelegates intensely and making the argument that he could win a general election.
Do you see a similar pattern happening now, with Sanders criticizing superdelegates but trying to use them?
Yes, we see Senator Sanders doing the same thing. He’s criticizing it overtly, but on other days he says he’s going to win with the superdelegates by convincing them to move over.
But Sanders supporters aren’t just courting superdelegates, they’re also targeting them for protest and pressure.
Right, it’s a hard thing to do both. From my conversations with members of Congress, they’re saying, ‘Gimme a break. We know these people and we know who we would rather govern with.’ They aren’t likely to be swayed. Remember, parties are a brand, and the superdelegates care about protecting that brand, for better or worse. No democracy in the world is without political parties, but everybody always hates them.
Do you feel that the criticisms of superdelegates are unprecedented this year?
Well, the superdelegates pretty much went unnoticed before 2008, because that was the first primary in a long time with a close nomination race. Most of the time, the superdelegates just don’t matter. In 2000, the first time I was a superdelegate, Gore defeated Bradley in New Hampshire and that was basically it. In 2004, I was originally for Howard Dean, but Kerry came out ahead in Iowa, and a month later, it was over. So this is just the second time around that we’ve had a close race that’s gone through the season. And because the nomination system only happens every four years, there’s always a new generation saying, ‘What? You do this like this?” So it’s kind of an every-four-years surprise.
This election is also energizing people who haven’t been involved in politics before, and they’re taking a hard look at the nomination rules and how fair or unfair they are.
That’s fine. But you have to remember, nominations are party business. It’s not a public race. Political parties are not in the Constitution, but they are protected by the First Amendment’s right of free association. There’s no constitutional guarantee that you can participate in the activity of a party. They’re a funny, semi-public organization. And for most of history, superdelegates were the only ones picking nominees. You couldn’t go to a convention unless you had some kind of tie to the party, either being elected on its ticket or worked really hard in the party. The notion that voters would pick the nominee was foreign all the way from 1831 to 1972. And in most democracies in the world, voters don’t get to choose the nominee of the party. Because this has become such a public process here, people have forgotten that, in the end, the parties get to decide who is a Democrat and who is a Republican.
This is why the Republicans are in such disarray right now. There are a lot of people who are saying, with justification, that Donald Trump is not a Republican. So I suspect a lot of people in that party are rethinking their whole process, because they’ve been hijacked by a celebrity.
You’re saying the Republicans wish they had superdelegates?
Yes, there are a lot of Republicans saying they wish they had superdelegates. But I think they might go further. I think in 2020 you’ll see the Republican Party divorcing its delegate selection process from party primaries. They already did that in Colorado, where they just elected delegates. So the candidates had to go in there and fight for delegates the old fashioned way, the way it used to be. So, if Trump wins the nomination and his candidacy is as much of a disaster as people think it will be for the Republicans, you may see a move back to an earlier model where the party holds more tightly onto the process.
But a party can’t make any rules they want. They couldn’t say, for example, that only property-holding men can participate.
Right, a party cannot abridge civil rights. But when cases have gone to court over proportional representation, or whether independents can vote in a primary, courts have consistently said that’s a party’s decision, because parties are free associations.
Democrats in Maine just voted to bind superdelegates to whichever candidate wins the state’s caucus, starting in 2020. What do you think about this rule change?
Yes, so a congressman from Maine would have to vote for whoever won the state. I’m sure this will come before us on the Rules Committee [at the DNC]. It somewhat undercuts the whole purpose, which is to have people with independent judgement and voices.
But people have been upset about these superdelegates going against the will of their constituents.
But they do that all the time. They vote on bills in ways their constituents don’t like. I mean, if you’re a superdelegate and Bernie Sanders won your state, but you want to vote for Hillary Clinton, you better be able to explain why to your voters. And if your voters care a lot about it, they know what to do to you.
Are you saying that these binding rule changes aren’t necessary because there’s enough accountability built into the process already?
Right, we all have to answer to someone eventually. If people think we’re really doing the wrong thing, we won’t be there anymore.
I think the most extreme example of this is [Vermont] Senator [Pat] Leahy supporting Hillary even though his state voted for Bernie. It’s a high-visibility thing to do when the presidential candidate is from your state. It doesn’t bode well that Leahy is not in favor of Bernie. It says that for all the years he’s been in Congress, [Sanders] doesn’t have deep roots and friendships with the party.
What was the instigation for the Democrats to create the superdelegate system in the first place?
It was the very contentious 1980 convention where it came down to a floor fight between President [Jimmy] Carter and Senator [Ted] Kennedy. It was a wake up call. After that, the senators and governors and party chairmen said, ‘Hey, we’re not on the floor! We have to get a guest credential to decide who’s going to be on the top of the ticket that we run on?’ The rules had opened up the delegate selection process to anybody, as long as they were a Democrat. It meant that officials who wanted to be delegates would have had to go to their district conventions and run against their own constituents. Not surprisingly, congressmen said they didn’t want to do that. So they realized they needed some means of having a voice, because their fates were intricately linked to the nominee — they had to run on the same ticket, and they had to govern with that person.
You’ve said that superdelegates have always followed the will of voters in the end, but you can imagine them deviating in order to “save” the party.
Right. So the primaries go on for about six months, and things can change during that time. In 2008, Senator John Edwards was in the midst of a very big scandal, involving a mistress, a baby, a cover up, the misuse of election funds. He went to court and got convicted. Nobody paid much attention to it because he was losing [the primary] anyway. But imagine if things had been different, if he had come out with the most delegates and then the scandal had broke. Superdelegates would have had to think twice about casting votes for him. Our rules say that superdelegates shall “in all good conscience” vote for the presidential candidate they were elected to represent. So there’s a very important loophole there, because if something changes, they can change their mind at the convention.
But if Trump, say, is convicted of fraud for his university. The Republican delegates still have to vote for him?
Well, they are bound by Rule 16 [to vote for whichever candidate won their state or district]. But if a week before the convention, Trump is indicted for fraud, I suspect a lot of delegates will not vote for Rule 16, so they can cast their votes exactly how they want to.
Concerns have been raised this year that dozens of superdelegates are lobbyists or former lobbyists. Are there any rules against that?
A superdelegate who is a lobbyist is probably a member of the DNC. The congressmen can’t be.
Do you feel it’s problematic?
Psh. C’mon. Don’t be ridiculous. You mean like a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO?
It was reported that one superdelegate is a former lobbyist for Geo Group, the private prison company, and TransCanada, the company that wanted to build the KeystoneXL pipeline.
Look, there are some superdelegates who live in Washington and they have consulting clients. But that has nothing to do with anything. The vast majority of DNC members are state people who live in a state and are active in politics and run for office in those state parties. There are only about 75 people who are elected at-large to the DNC, and there are a lot of Washingtonians in that group.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.