The Man of the People: Part V - Super Delegates

The Man of the People: Part V - Super Delegates

By Scott Lipkowitz

  In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond points out that for every beneficial advance in technology there are accompanying negative side effects, many of which are unanticipated. Cars are a great example. So is the internet. Blow-back from novel inventions is not limited to the realm of technology, however. Cultural, economic, and political innovations also carry the same potential for negative consequences as do Toyotas and Facebook. This fact is writ large across the entire history of presidential creation, selection, and election. 

  Right from the start, the founders attempted to anticipate every pitfall, every problematic avenue that could arise from the establishment of an independent executive. They came up with a solution, and that solution, given time and the inconsistencies and ambitions of human beings, created further problems. Those problems - of Congressional deal-making, bickering, and animosity - lead to further solutions - the national party system and party conventions - which in turn created new problems - the control of candidate selection by party bosses, to the exclusion of the average citizen. Beginning in 1900 the pendulum would once again swing toward a solution to this newest of problems: the preferential primary. However, zeal for the preferential primary began to wane in the aftermath of Theodore Roosevelt's defeat in 1912. The Great Depression and the U.S. involvement in two world wars helped to further draw attention away from the preferential primary; and thus, by mid-century, the tally of states allowing party voters to directly influence the selection of delegates to the presidential nominating conventions was barely into double digits: a mere 17 out of 50 by 1968.

  That year, it would be the turn of the Democrats to experience major internal convulsions. Lyndon Johnson, after assuming the presidency in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, won re-election the following year by the largest popular vote margin in United States history; eclipsing Franklin Delano Roosevelt's previous landslide record in the election of 1936. That popularity would prove short-lived however. Johnson had barely been sworn in, and his successful Civil Rights package enacted, when race riots that began in Los Angeles spread to other major cities. Compounding that volatility was Johnson's decision to double-down on a stalled military effort in Vietnam which had begun under Kennedy. Public disillusion with the ruling party, rancor over a deteriorating domestic security situation, resistance to military involvement in Vietnam, and the desire for a sweeping change to the entire system would ferment into outright opposition to Johnson and the Democrats by 1968.  

  Johnson appeared weak and out of touch with popular sentiment; and many of his Democratic colleagues smelled blood. Chief among them was Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. McCarthy declared his intent to challenge Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in November 1967; citing the administration's "evident intention to intensify the war in Vietnam" as his main reason for doing so. McCarthy's anti-war position was a popular one, and while he was narrowly defeated by Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, Johnson saw the writing on the wall. In the aftermath of Johnson's close shave, Robert F. Kennedy threw his hat into the ring, and the President, despairing of his ability to secure the nomination, announced that he would not seek re-election shortly thereafter. Yet, New Hampshire didn't have to be Johnson's death knell. The vast majority of the states still held closed door party caucuses and were controlled by Democratic party officials. Had he not contested any primary, the Democratic establishment would have returned to Johnson the nomination; despite McCarthy and Kennedy's popular support.

  It was this exact strategy which Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's Vice President, now sought to implement. Humphrey differed very little from Johnson in terms of policy, but he was a party insider, and familiar with the operations of the national machine. A portion of the Democratic base may have been united in opposition to his policies; but Democratic bosses certainly were not. While McCarthy fought it out in the few preferential primaries with Robert F. Kennedy, Humphrey chose not to enter a single one; opting instead to hunt for delegates in the overwhelming majority of states where the rank and file were not given a say. Before the Democratic National Convention even convened, Humphrey had secured a majority of the delegates needed to win the nomination; and not a single Democratic rank and file vote had been cast for him. Numerous groups planned to protest outside the Convention and to contest its proceedings from within. Clashes between protestors - angry at the possibility of continuing the status quo with a Humphrey nomination - and police were broadcast on live television. Inside the hall, a bitter debate over Vietnam policy raged. Everywhere, the image of a Democratic Party hopelessly battling itself, divided, and confused, contrasted with the relative ease with which the Republicans had solidified their support for Richard Nixon. 

  Blood, sweat, and brick-bats, however, would not be enough to deter the party establishment. Just as in 1912, the operation of the machine proved hard to overcome. Nixon began to position himself as a "law and order" candidate; one who could both quell the domestic unrest and deliver results in Vietnam. No matter what a bunch of "peaceniks" may have desired, Eugene McCarthy, in the eyes of the party establishment, did not seem capable of returning the Democrats to power against such an adversary. Winning, and not popular will, was, again, the prime objective. In the end the Democrats endorsed a platform of continued military operations in Vietnam and Hubert Humphrey as their standard bearer. For Haynes Johnson, political commentator and author, the 1968 Democratic Convention was a "lacerating event...[eclipsing] any other such convention in American history, destroying faith in politicians, in the political system, in the country and in its institutions. No one who was there, or who watched it on television, could escape the memory of what took place before their eyes." 

  Had any of those who were watching been even somewhat familiar with the history of presidential nominations from 1832 on, they might not have been so shocked by the 1968 Democratic Convention results. Party bosses had once again succeeded in thwarting the perceived will of the people, as they had been doing for well over a century. Yet, that sense of dire hopelessness so evident in Haynes Johnson's description of what happened did cause some of the political elite to sit up and take notice; especially once Humphrey had been defeated by Nixon. Nixon had not defeated Humphrey by a large margin, at least in the popular vote; but to Democratic leadership the lesson was clear: blatantly ignoring the popular will, small as it may have been, might have been an underlying cause of Humphrey's defeat. The long floor fight and televised violence on the Chicago streets certainly added to public dissatisfaction with the Democrats, and so, responding to the political pendulum swing, new party rules were adopted for the election cycle of 1972.  

  Following rule changes implemented by the McGovern/Fraser committee, two-thirds of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention were chosen through preferential primaries held in 23 states. This time, a popularly selected nominee, George McGovern - the same McGovern who chaired the rule changing committee - would run against Nixon; but, despite the increase in rank and file input into his selection, McGovern too would come up short in the November election. Yet, this did not slow the pace of primary adoption. During the following election, in 1976, more than thirty states held primaries, and Jimmy Carter, another popularly supported candidate received the Democratic nomination. The power of party bosses seemed to have been negated; but looks may be deceiving. The McGovern/Fraser committee had changed the Democratic Party Rules; but that does not mean that they changed any laws. This is because, where internal party decisions are concerned, for all intents and purposes, there are no federal laws or statues governing what they can or cannot do. If we return to our corporate structure analogy from the previous post, changing the rules to allow for more delegate selection through primaries is essentially Apple asking consumers to take a survey on what features the new iPhone should have, and then implementing the most popular choices. Apple doesn't need to hold such a survey, but they can if they want to, and they can just ask quickly go back to the non-survey mode of iPhone creation whenever they so choose. The parties can change their internal rules whenever they like, and to suit whatever purpose the party functionaries so desire. Just take the decision of Colorado Republicans to not hold a primary this year, as further evidence of this fact.

  The McGovern/Fraser reforms were the response to a political problem, and they created, as one would expect, yet another political problem: McGovern and Carter didn't win in the general elections. Yes, Carter defeated Gerald Ford in 1976; but Ford was tarnished by Nixon's criminal activity, and was never perceived as a strong President. When the Republican's fired back in the 1980 election with Ronald Reagan, Carter - who, for various complex reasons we won't get into here, was painted as being soft and un-American - suffered a crushing defeat, both popularly and electorally.  Reducing the influence of party bosses clearly did not work for the Democrats; and like any good corporation facing a loss in market share, they decided that a new rule change was needed to allow them to, in the words of Governor James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, get back to "the business of winning again." Thus, the Hunt Commission - chaired by the very frank Governor Hunt - convened in the aftermath of the 1980 Democratic electoral flop, to rewrite the McGovern/Fraser reforms, and place the interests of the party back on top. 

  Enter the much despised super-delegates. Testifying before the Hunt Commission, Congressman Gillis Long, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, asked that 2/3 of the House Democratic membership be sent as unpledged delegates to the 1984 nominating convention, because, as Gillis put it, the Democratic leadership were the "last vestige of of Democratic Control at the national level." Gillis believed that as party officials, the House members had a "special responsibility to develop new innovative approaches to respond to our Party's constituencies." In other words, the party bosses had a responsibility to ensure the party had as a good a chance as possible of winning. The party's "constituencies" he refers to are not "we the people"; but rather party members eager to maintain their positions of power and the legions of outside interests dependent upon that continuation of power. Governor Hunt was inclined to agree with Gillis' assessment, stating, "We must also give our convention more flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and, in cases where the voters’ mandate is less than clear, to make a reasoned choice ... [an] important step would be to permit a substantial number of party leader and elected official delegates to be selected without requiring a prior declaration of preference. We would then return a measure of decision-making power and discretion to the organized party and increase the incentive it has to offer elected officials for serious involvement.” "Without requiring a prior declaration of preference" means a delegate who can declare for any candidate without being bound by the will of party voters - a "super-delegate." 

  One of those outside interests keen to see a continuation of Democratic power was the AFL-CIO, which joined with Hunt and the Democratic State Chairs' Association, to call for 30% of the 1984 convention delegates to be composed of these super delegates, chosen from the party's establishment members. Though this proposal had wide support initially, objections were made - but not out of any appeal to democratic principles one might expect - and ultimately, under the Ferraro Proposal, put forth by Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the total number of super delegates selected by the party was set at 14%; where it still roughly rests today. 

  This years' primaries, especially the Democratic contests between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, brought the issue of super-delegates to national attention; creating a deep sense of outrage among the voting public; especially when it seemed as though unelected delegates would decide the nomination in favor of a party stalwart over a popularly supported opposition candidate. However, those paying attention to history, and viewing the parties as what they really are - corporations whose product is the running of government - were not so shocked by this apparently sudden revelation. Super delegates are nothing more than a pendulum swing back toward the rule of party bosses that dominated the nomination process from 1832 until the 1970's. They are not new; nor are they some violation of the law, because, as we have repeated over and over again, the party's are not the government and thus are not bound by the Constitution or its amendments. Everything the parties have done, from their very institution as national organizations to their implementation of super-delegates as a means of reasserting their control has been done to solve political problems, some of them arising directly from the vacillating opinions and allegiances of the general voting public. Yet, no matter what the underlying cause of these novel political inventions, their end goal is always the same: to win, to maintain the hold on power. 

  In an article from 2008, entitled A Brief History of Super Delegates, the Daily Kos argues that in reality super delegates are beneficial to the nominating process, in that they actually serve to uphold democracy, while at the same time protecting the interests of the party. This may be so; but only when upholding democracy and the interests of the party happen to dovetail perfectly. As we have seen, whenever these two competing needs have come into conflict, the parties will change whatever rules they have to in order to ensure that the latter concern is always secured; even if it means jettisoning the former. Public anger at the super delegate revelation may provoke a change in direction, in much the same way that 1968 and 1980 produced procedural shifts; but whatever solution the parties employ will undoubtedly spawn unforeseen political problems at some point in the future, which, in turn, will lead to more novel solutions, and on, and on. Of course understanding this reality and its quintessentially human causes is only helpful if we learn from it; if we take the lessons of history and try to apply them to the here and now. We'll attempt to do just that in the sixth and final part of The Man of the People.



Diamond, Jared. 2011. Collapse. Revised Edition. Penguin Books.

United States Presidential Election of 1968. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

Johnson, Haynes. 1968 Democratic Convention (The Bosses Strike Back). Smithsonian Magazine. 2008.

Stark, Leonard P. The Presidential Primary and Caucus Schedule: A Role For Federal Regulation? Yale Law & Policy Review, Volume 15, Issue 1. 1996.

Marlow, James. McCarthy Is Unlikely To Alter LBJ Policy. Kentucky New Era. 1967.

Press Conference of Senator Eugene J. McCarthy. Senate Caucus Room, Washington D.C., November 30, 1967.

Election Results, Presidential Election of 1980. 270toWin.

Kamarck, Elaine. A History of 'Super-Delegates' in the Democratic Party. Harvard Kennedy School.

Clymer, Adam. Democrats Argue 1984 Campaign Rules. The New York Times. September 25, 1981.

Poblano. A Brief History of Superdelegates. The Daily Kos. 2008.

The Man of the People: Part VI - Trust Busting

The Man of the People: Part VI - Trust Busting

The Man of the People: Part IV - Bull Moose vs. The Machine

The Man of the People: Part IV - Bull Moose vs. The Machine