The Democratic primary contest is shaping up to be the closest since 1984. The campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are preparing for a delegate battle. If the race goes down to the wire, an elite contingent of superdelegates–unpledged party operatives and elected officials not chosen by primary voters–could play a decisive role, even though most voters don’t know they exist. How could the Democratic Party be so, well, undemocratic?
Rewind to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which showcased the undue influence of the party’s old guard. Big-city bosses like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley handed the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, despite Humphrey’s support for a deeply unpopular war and the fact that he hadn’t won a single primary. As Rick Perlstein recounts in his forthcoming book, Nixonland, Eugene McCarthy won 79 percent of the vote in the Pennsylvania primary but got less than 20 percent of the state’s delegates at the convention. The rest were picked by the party machine. The will of the voters was ignored at the convention, and protesters on the streets outside it were met with clubs and tear gas.
Despite the backroom double-dealing, supporters of McCarthy and Robert Kennedy were able to pass a rule at the convention mandating a study of how the party picked its nominee. This rather innocuous effort, initially led by Iowa Governor Harold Hughes, a popular liberal reformer, led to the McGovern Commission, whose 1970 report, Mandate for Reform, led to a sweeping revision of party politics, which greatly expanded the number of primaries and ensured that convention delegates were roughly proportional to primary vote results; drastically reduced the power of party officials to serve as delegates and dictate the choice of nominee; and mandated a greater role for rising forces within the party–young people, women, minorities. The new rules helped catapult two dark horses to the nomination, McGovern himself in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.
By 1980 the party establishment had seen enough. It struck back with a commission of its own, led by North Carolina Governor James Hunt. It returned power to elected officials and party regulars–the superdelegates, who will make up about 20 percent of the 4,049 delegates at the Democratic convention. They include all Democratic members of Congress and every governor, but roughly half of them are Democratic National Committee officials elected by state parties, who range from top party operatives to local city council members. Key interests in the party, like labor groups, can also name superdelegates. According to political scientist Rhodes Cook, superdelegates were created as a “firewall to blunt any party outsider that built up a head of steam in the primaries.”
That’s what happened in 1984, when Senator Gary Hart launched an insurgent challenge to front-runner Walter Mondale. Hart won sixteen state primaries and caucuses to Mondale’s ten, and barely lost the popular vote. Yet Mondale locked up virtually all the party’s 700 or so superdelegates even before the primary began. Hart likely would have lost anyway, but the superdelegates sealed his defeat. “I got almost none of them, because [Mondale] was considered inevitable,” Hart told me.