Dear Shaun King, the superdelegates won’t be throwing the election

Following Bernie Sanders’s win in the New Hampshire primary last month, his supporters noticed that his win wasn’t really a “win.” While he took home 15 of the state’s 24 pledged delegates, Hillary Clinton had already won the support of six superdelegates from the state, meaning that even though Sanders won the state by roughly twenty points, the delegate count resulted in a tie.

This prompted some earlier-than-usual handwringing from the Democratic electorate over the party’s superdelegate system, which was the subject of much debate during the 2008 race, as well. Is it really fair that party insiders and elected officials account for over fifteen percent of the delegates at the convention? Does it make sense for them to be completely unaccountable to the voters? Are they going to throw the election for Clinton???

No, they almost certainly aren’t.

As I wrote last month, while superdelegates are in theory undemocratic and silly, in practice they aren’t at all likely to decide anything. Being the self-interested individuals that they are, they follow the leader in hopes of currying favor with them. Hillary Clinton currently enjoys a massive lead among superdelegates because she is the prohibitive favorite to win a solid majority of pledged delegates. If Bernie Sanders surged and took a majority of the pledged delegates, most of the superdelegates would flip. There is basically no scenario in which Sanders wins more pledged delegates than Clinton and loses the nomination.

Again, just because superdelegates almost certainly aren’t going to decide the Democratic race doesn’t mean they make sense. They represent a holdover from the pre-primary days of picking party nominees in smoke-filled rooms, and in theory they act as a check against the voters if the Party really does want to decide. If a team of democratic theorists were to come up with a primary system from scratch, the chances are pretty good that the system they came up with wouldn’t include anything that resembled superdelegates. Then again, if we let teams of democratic theorists build our political institutions from scratch, we’d also have automatic voter registration, proportional representation and ranked-choice voting. Our institutions are path-dependent. We find ways to make them work as best they can.

Yesterday, however, a full month after this debate was more or less wrapped up, New York Daily News columnist Shaun King decided to raise the issue once again — and do so in deeply irresponsible terms. In his telling, not only are superdelegates undemocratic and silly, they are an engine of fraud. As he wrote:

Shaun King (right) and Crowdrise founder Robert Wolfe (left), via Geoff Livingston / Flickr

Shaun King (right) and Crowdrise founder Robert Wolfe (left), via Geoff Livingston / Flickr

Here’s where it begins to border fraud.

The super-delegates, which again are just individual people chosen by established party leaders, currently represent 41.8 of the total delegates the candidates have received. And again, 95.3% of these 473 people have chosen Clinton as their candidate.

So, even though 7 million have voted, 473 people that nearly none of us know, get to account for 41.8% of the delegates.

If you’re going to call foul on the superdelegate system, it helps to know who superdelegates actually are. Far from being “just individual people chosen by established party leaders,” there actually is some method to this madness. Superdelegates aren’t just some random people that Debbie Wasserman Schultz picked out of a crowd on the condition that they do her bidding; they include every Democratic member of Congress, every Democratic governor and every elected member of the Democratic National Committee. They aren’t all well-known, but they are knowable. Most of them are theoretically accountable to an electorate of some kind. This isn’t to defend the system; it’s simply to define terms.

Furthermore, the number of superdelegates who have publicly stated their support may equal 41.8% of the total delegates allocated thus far, as King laments, but this is a gross misrepresentation of how much influence they’ll actually have at the convention. There are 712 superdelegates, while 4,051 pledged delegates will be allocated over the course of the primary campaign. Superdelegates account for about 16 (as in, much less than 42) percent of the total number of delegates at the convention. Again, this doesn’t mean that the level of influence they have makes sense; it’s simply to pin down how much influence they actually have.

However, what makes King’s post particularly problematic isn’t his misrepresentation of who superdelegates are and the level of influence they will wield at the convention; it’s his implication that they are evidence of a rigged, fraudulent election. Take a passage like this:

These 473 political insiders are, in essence, stuffing the ballot boxes to make sure their candidate wins in spite of how people actually vote. Of course, they don’t call it that, but that’s exactly what’s happening here.

Let me push this notion of how the superdelegate system is simply a politically correct way to stuff the ballot boxes and thwart the will of the people.

Theoretically this is what could happen down the road, but in practice this has never happened and probably never will happen. In 2008, Hillary Clinton had a similar (albeit smaller) lead in superdelegates at this stage in the primary. Watch what happened as it became increasingly clear that then-Senator Obama was going to win the majority of pledged delegates:

2008 superdelegate count over time, via FiveThirtyEight

2008 superdelegate count over time, via FiveThirtyEight

Instead of bothering to check recent history to see if the scenario he’s worried about has ever played out in the past, King simply asserted that the superdelegates can and will intervene on behalf of Clinton in the event of an impending Sanders win. This serves no purpose other than to delegitimize a prospective Clinton victory, giving Sanders supporters a (bad) reason to flip a table and sit out in November if their preferred candidate doesn’t win the nomination.

I like Bernie. I voted for Bernie. I’m also under no illusions about his chances of winning, and I’m not about to pretend that a Clinton victory would be illegitimate. The debate over superdelegates happened a month ago; it’s over. Let it go.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Haroldl Clayton

    Soon as the Pied Piper of Vermont couldn’t get enough super delegates to go along with him ( the Piper ) he the Piper changed his tune !!!! It’s an injustice he screams !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • timncguy

    I agree. Most online sources list the numbers separately. Some of them even separate the super delegates into two parts for those whose states have and have not voted yet. It is the TV media that I have noticed likes to report heavily on the super delegates and show them in the reported totals.

  • That’s a valid complaint. I would note that the most reliable sources (like 538) listen them separately and then show the total. They should be kept separate because delegates are bound in the first round of voting at the convention (I can barely remember there being more than one but it has happened and could again one day). Superdelates may have promised a candidate they’d vote for them but there’s nothing to prevent them from changing their minds. They should be counted separately.

  • There’s a lot messed up about the delegate selection process in both parties. But the time to address those problems in between elections, not during them. Because during the election it just looks like one camp is butthurt that the rules are working in another candidate’s favor. It looks that way because that’s what’s happening. Every election. I remember similar talk all the way back into the 1970s. So yes, let’s talk about reforming how the primaries work in 2017 and 2018 when we can actually change the rules. For now, we’re stuck with them, like it or not.

  • timncguy

    one thing that makes the super delegates “issue” sound more menacing is the media’s insistence on reporting their numbers at the very beginning of the primaries if they have made any public statement of who they currently support and reporting the numbers without separating them from the pledged delegate counts.

    If the media is going to insist on reporting the super delegates they should report them separately from the pledged delegate numbers and only report the super delegates for the states that have voted to date in the primary. Then the whole this makes a bit more sense.

    It sounds completely ridiculous for the media to report the results after Iowa, which awarded 44 pledged delegates, by including hundreds of super delegates into the total.

  • Frups

    Shaun King is relentless and HIGHLY effective on issues of crime and the justice system. I was confused by his ‘super delegates’ article though. Very odd take on an issue that has been written about for years.

    Bernie trails with pledged delegates AND total votes. If he loses, he should look at his substantial tactical errors. Hillary was beatable but somehow he decided to basically dismiss the democratic base. I still don’t understand his thought process.

    Tough to win that way, as he’s finding out as we speak. A loss in Michigan is essentially a wrap.

  • Baal

    I am starting to think that this guy Shaun King has some issues. He sometimes makes some really good points but I think he is not very reliable.

  • For the last several elections, the so-called ‘super-delegates’ really have only to served to pad the lead of whomever happens to be the presumptive favorite. In theory they could throw a close election one way or the other, but hey, the bigger difference is one that hasn’t been talked about, and that’s the elimination of ‘winner takes all’ primaries and caucuses.

    Back in 2008, more than a few Clinton supporters were upset by the fact the Obama campaign focused more of their attention on these WTA states, especially late in the race. Which was how Obama was able to erase a strong Clinton lead and take the majority starting in May. The super-delegates didn’t switch allegiance until it was clear Obama was going to have the plurality.

    IMHO the two worst ‘features’ of the current system, which applies to both parties, are:
    Caucuses, which reward voters who have an excess of free time on their hands and are really committed to having their will prevail, despite nearly always being a mere single-digit percentage of eligible voters in terms of turn-out.
    The unfair schedule, which for no reason other than ‘tradition’ puts Iowa and New Hampshire first, Nevada and South Carolina next, and then ‘Super Tuesday.’ The result, aside from the environment- and engine-destroying ethanol subsidies and excessive pandering to Evangelicals, is an early selection of candidates who do not really represent mainstream America. Not to mention how quite unfair it is to have just those four states acting as perpetual gatekeepers.

    A truly fair system would be standardized primary elections not caucuses and either randomized or round-robin scheduling.

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