Mellman: In defense of superdelegates

Mellman: In defense of superdelegates
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I’m about to make some enemies.

In recent weeks, passionate denunciations of “superdelegates” have rolled in from most quarters of the Democratic Party.

They’ve been labeled unfair, unjust and even anti-democratic.

To the contrary, I believe superdelegates represent an entirely appropriate, indeed necessary, institution.


For those unfamiliar with the minutiae of the presidential nominating process, 85 percent of delegates are elected to attend the Democratic National Convention by voters who cast ballots in primaries and caucuses. These delegates are pledged to support one presidential candidate or another at the convention.

“Superdelegates” have the right to vote at the nominating convention by virtue of being elected officials or elected party leaders. They remain free to vote for whichever candidate they feel is best suited to be the party’s nominee.

The core objection to this species of delegate seems to be the notion that they, unlike pledged delegates, were not elected by “the people” to help decide the party’s nominee for president.

Before going on, let’s go back a couple of steps.

Our founders never contemplated political parties and the Constitution does not mention, let alone regulate, them, though our political tradition accords them great weight.

By tradition, “the party,” not the whole of “the people,” decides who its nominee for president shall be.

But just who is the “the party”? 

In some countries, party members are required to pay dues and/or sign an oath. Bolsheviks could only join the party upon recommendation from existing members.

In America, people may choose to contribute to a party committee, but that does not necessarily make them party members, nor does refusal to donate preclude them from membership.

Parties make their own rules, and those rules vary from state to state.

In many states, anyone who registers to vote as a Democrat is a “member” of the party. In some states, registered independents have as much right as registered Democrats to select party nominees for state and federal office. 

In Ohio, choosing to vote in one party’s primary or the other makes you a party member, until you decide to vote in another party’s primary or choose to deregister yourself.

Indeed, Democrats now have a highly respected candidate for president who is not a registered Democrat. 

This is not to besmirch Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSanders expected to announce exploratory committee next week Bernie Sanders records announcement video ahead of possible 2020 bid Bill Maher to Dems: ‘Let’s not eat our own’ in 2020 MORE. It is all to suggest, however, when we say, “Let the party decide its nominee,” determining who should count in making decisions is far from straightforward.

However, if one set of individuals is clearly Democrat or Republican, it is those who choose to attach themselves to the party label and who win public office under its banner.

Moreover, these superdelegates have the virtue of having gotten votes on behalf of the party in other elections. Every senatorial and gubernatorial superdelegate, along with just about every member of Congress, has secured more votes than any slate of presidential delegates from their state or district. 

Sanders won the most votes ever in a New Hampshire presidential primary — just over 151,000. Gov. Maggie Hassan won her office with almost 255,000 votes. Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCongress must step up to protect Medicare home health care Dems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants Bipartisan Senators reintroduce legislation to slap new sanctions on Russia MORE (D-N.H.) garnered 250,000, and Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.) captured almost as many votes in her one congressional district as Sanders did in the state’s two districts combined.

Beyond having earned the right to participate in nominating the presidential candidate through victory in gladiatorial combat on behalf of the party, superdelegates are more likely to have seen the potential nominees operate up close. Their judgments about the candidates are based on far more knowledge than the average voter brings to bear.

If Republicans had more superdelegates with in-depth knowledge of the candidates, their current embarrassment may have been avoided. 

Democrats should carefully examine the failures of the GOP process before stripping their leaders of the power to help determine the party’s future nominees.


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.