Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Cloudy 39° Cloudy

Spin Control

Sunday Spin: Democratic superdelegates lean establishment

With the Democratic precinct caucuses scheduled for next Saturday morning, it’s probably a good time to answer that quadrennial question.

What the heck is a superdelegate? And the follow-up: What’s their super power?

Despite the name, this is not the latest hero in some Hollywood rendition of a DC Comics franchise. It’s someone that rules of the Democratic National Committee say can go to the national convention and cast a vote for the party’s presidential nominee based on the fact that they occupy an important elective office. 

That means one super power is the ability to leap over the process faced by mortal men. . . er, regular folks. . . the long drawn-out caucus and convention system.

In general, superdelegates are U.S. senators and representatives, governors and other Democratic poobahs. They are free to give their support to any candidate at any time, or no candidate, before they step foot on the convention floor. They can also change their support at any time, for any reason or no reason. They are not prohibited from explaining their decision, but they aren’t required to do so, either. (Being established politicians, however, it’s usually not a problem to get them to talk.)

Washington’s superdelegates include Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Gov. Jay Inslee, and the six Democratic U.S. House members, all of whom occupy districts west of the Cascades. The state party chairman and vice chairwoman, and state members of the Democratic National Committee, which are party elective offices, are also super ds. In Idaho, the list is shorter: With no high-ranking elected Democrats in the Gem State, it’s the four members of the national committee.

They can also be Distinguished Party Leaders or DPLs, Democrats who used to be in office but aren’t any more. Barack Obama is a DPL, as are former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Former House Speaker Tom Foley was a DPL even after he lost the 1994 election, and counted as part of the Washington delegation.

Superdelegates are almost always controversial in a contested race for the nomination because they tend to lean toward the establishment candidate – heck, they essentially are “the establishment” – much more so than any upstart insurgent. But another of their super powers is the ability to sense the way the political winds are blowing and move to the upstart if he or she starts winning primaries and caucuses. This happened in 2008, when Hillary Clinton had the majority of the super ds in her column until Obama was clearly getting more of the pledged delegates from primaries and caucuses. Then, not quite as fast as a speeding bullet, the super ds lined up for Obama.

Right now, Hillary Clinton has 467 superdelegates, Bernie Sanders has 26.

The idea of super ds seems like a throwback to the days of party bosses and smoke-filled rooms, but it was designed to avoid nasty convention fights, not start them. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee without entering a single primary. That was the year Gene McCarthy started with a bang, shocked Lyndon Johnson, who made the surprise announcement he wouldn’t seek re-election, prompting Bobby Kennedy enter the race. Then McCarthy fizzled, Kennedy was assassinated and Democrats went to their convention without a clear favorite from the primaries. The party leaders picked Humphrey, who was, after all, vice president. He lost to Richard Nixon.

Bad on you, party leaders, the some Democrats said, and put more emphasis on the primaries in picking delegates. How’d that work out for them? Well, it got them George McGovern in 1972. The process worked for Carter in 1976, but he had a primary fight with Teddy Kennedy in 1980 and lost to Ronald Reagan in the fall, and Democrats came up with superdelegates in 1984. 

Being prescient about winners for November is not among the super ds’ super powers. Not counting incumbent re-elections, because they get all delegates of all kinds regardless, that’s Walter Mondale (loss), Michael Dukakis (loss), Clinton (win), Al Gore (loss), John Kerry (loss), and Obama (after switching from Hillary Clinton). So .333 if you count the switcheroo in ‘08. That would be pretty good if they were trying to hit Major League pitching, but a one-way ticket to Palookaville by almost any other standard.

Republicans don’t have superdelegates. They have a few party officials from each state whom they call “automatic delegates,” which is sort of the same thing. But current and former elected leaders who want to go to the convention have to make their pitch to local activists just like everyone else.

Some years that leads to Republicans feeling a little bit smug about how much more democratic their nominating process is. This year, if they go to their convention without one candidate having enough delegates to clinch the nomination, they might wish they had a few more old hands to steer the ship. 



Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

Follow Jim online: