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What is a Superdelegate?

A superdelegate is a unique player in the U.S. Democratic Party's presidential nominating process. Unlike regular delegates, who are bound by primary or caucus results, superdelegates—party leaders and elected officials—have the freedom to support any candidate at the convention. Their influential votes can sway the outcome, raising debates about democratic representation. How might this affect the next election? Join the discussion to explore further.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

After primary elections take place for people choosing to run for the US Presidency, the Republican and Democratic parties each hold a National convention. At this convention the person who will represent the party and run in the Presidential election is nominated. Part of this nomination is determined by delegates, who represent the number of votes won at primaries or caucuses through the primary period. Each delegate is a representation of the popular vote for each district. It is possible to achieve more individual votes and still enter the primary with fewer delegates. A superdelegate is something quite different and is an elected official in the Democratic Party who gets to cast an individual vote for his/her candidate of choice not based on the votes of citizens.

Up until the 1970s, party officials chose their presidential candidate. Primaries and caucuses became the principal method for giving people choice in who they wanted to run, not leaving the decision solely up to the party. But both Republicans and Democrats still wanted to have a say in the final decision, resulting in the creation of the superdelegate or unpledged delegate role. Superdelegates are chosen differently per party.

The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.
The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.

The Democrats have at present, 796 superdelegate members. These are made up of all Democratic members of Congress, Democratic governors, members of the Democratic Committee and other Democratic elected officials. In all there are a total of 4049 superdelegates and delegates, and winning the Democratic nomination means getting 2025 delegate votes. These numbers are subject to change and have changed from convention to convention based on a variety of factors. Technically, a Democrat can win the nomination without any superdelegate support, but if a race is close, these votes can be extremely important.

The Republican Party has about 400 superdelegate members. They’re often simply called unpledged delegates because the term superdelegate arises from the Democratic Party. They have much less sway, unless the race is extremely close, in the final nomination for their presidential candidate.

Many people feel that the appointment of superdelegate candidates, and/or their sheer existence is not in keeping with the democratic ideals of election. Superdelegates can controvert the will of the people in a close election, and they do not have to make their choice based on popular vote. Other factors like personal relationships, political alignments, or simply like or dislike of a person may inform the choice of a superdelegate. People often criticize this process of nomination because it does not fully represent the will of the people.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a superdelegate in the context of American politics?

A superdelegate is a type of delegate to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) who is not bound by the results of primaries and caucuses in their state. Unlike pledged delegates, superdelegates—comprising Democratic National Committee members, Democratic governors, members of Congress, and distinguished party leaders—have the freedom to support any candidate for the presidential nomination. This system allows experienced party members to have a say in the nomination process, potentially influencing the outcome.

How many superdelegates are there, and how does their number compare to pledged delegates?

As of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, there were approximately 771 superdelegates, according to the Democratic National Committee. This number is significantly smaller compared to the total number of pledged delegates, which was around 3,979. Superdelegates thus represented roughly 16% of the total delegate count, highlighting their potential influence in a close nomination race.

Can superdelegates vote on the first ballot at the convention?

Following reforms enacted after the 2016 election, superdelegates are no longer allowed to vote on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention unless the outcome is already determined by the pledged delegates' votes. This change was implemented to ensure that the will of the party's electorate is the primary factor in selecting the nominee, as reported by the Democratic National Committee.

What role do superdelegates play in the nomination process?

Superdelegates serve as a balancing force in the Democratic nomination process. They can provide stability and experience, potentially acting as a safeguard against a candidate who may be deemed less electable in a general election. Their role is to offer independent judgment, and they may also help in unifying the party behind a single candidate, especially in a contested convention scenario.

Have superdelegates ever changed the outcome of a Democratic nomination?

While superdelegates have the potential to influence the nomination, there has not been a case where their votes have directly changed the outcome of a Democratic nomination. Typically, the candidate who wins the majority of pledged delegates also garners enough support from superdelegates to secure the nomination. However, their presence can add weight to a leading candidate's claim to the nomination, especially in a closely contested primary season.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent HistoricalIndex contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent HistoricalIndex contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon12472

I too believe the election should be decided by the popular vote of the people. The one the most people vote for should be elected. Otherwise why should we vote? Evidently the people don't decide who the President will be.

anon11834

Why can't we do away with the electoral college and all this superdelegate stuff and just vote the general population? seems to me, this gives the 2 parties a chance to control how the public votes. it certainly discourages the rise of a 3rd party. sharon/calif

osmosis

The idea of superdelegates is ludicrous. What possible reason could the Democratic party have for not wanting to go with the will of the people? Although the Republicans are supposed to be the party of the rich and elite, the Democrats are looking more and more like they are more concerned about the elite and much much less about the ordinary people. After all, they're not concerned with the vote of the ordinary people, but just of the superdelegates, who really have no accountability.

anon10045

Actually, superdelegates can also be used in the case of voter fraud. For example, if a high percentage of delegates are for a candidate that only got a small percentage of the popular vote then this would be an indicator that voter fraud has occurred.

Today where people are too lazy to spend a few extra hours per precinct to hand count votes and opt instead to trust computers that can be hacked there is a huge potential for voter fraud. I believe this year is one of the worst years on record for voter fraud. We are seeing huge discrepancies between the number of delegates for a particular republican candidate and the percentage of the popular vote. For example, in Missouri, we just held a state wide caucus where Ron Paul got over 70 percent of the delegates but only got 5 percent of the votes. I am convinced that this must be voter fraud. Usually the method for electing superdelegates is by a hand count in an auditorium and is much less susceptible to voter fraud. Where I am from, we actually call for people to stand up, one teller from each candidate hand counts those standing and this makes it almost impossible to rig unless people signing people in are letting people in that are not from that county.

Anyway I will leave you with this quote from Joseph Stalin,

"It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything."

Signed,

SuperPatriot

anon9488

I'm not sure, but I think the delegate system was developed as a means to keep the popular vote of one state from usurping the power of another. Our whole system of government seems based on this assumption. For instance, one candidate wins a state with 100 delegates by a huge margin. Another candidate wins 100 delegates in a similar sized state by a slim margin. Bottom line, even as one candidate may have a million more popular votes, each has 100 delegates, and are even. That's all that counts. Total vote is moot, because it can only sort of 'stack the deck' so to speak, to falsely show one candidate to be more popular elsewhere than he or she really is. We see in sports, football, where one team may run up 500 total yards, more pass completions, etc, to be more exciting, etc, while the other team 250 yards, less passing, less other stats, but scores more points. Thus a victory. It would be unfair to judge victory by what happens between the lines, or how many ovations one received during the game. Only the points are what counts. Same with a team that wins a game by 50 points and another team wins by 3 points. Each has one victory, no more no less. Total points scored otherwise means nothing to each other. When they play off, all that is considered is that they each have one victory. To use majority popular vote, majority effort, majority stats to judge victory is a different game, and right now is not the way we do it. And when you think about it, the way it is now, and as it is in many sports contests, it is the fairest way for all candidates to have the best chances of winning. Score the most points, period.

anon9379

I'm with anon8341.

Please explain why we have delegates/supers? Scenario: Mr A. is a registered voter, and votes in his hometown on election day. Mr A. is also a delegate or superdelegate. did he or does he vote again at the convention, thus having voted basically 2 or 3 times? Why is his vote at a convention necessary when the nominee has already been named at the time of the convention?

anon9341

In this computer age why do we need delegates and superdelegates? Why can't we just use the majority vote? This is just another way for the candidate to be obligated to someone.

anon8350

Why are there more Democratic Superdelegates then Republican Superdelegates?

JAP

malena

i just heard that superdelegates can change their mind. but, once they've told a candidate, and especially if it's been published, that they will award their delegate to that candidate they will likely hold to that. still, these elected and party officials who are the superdelegates probably want to choose whoever is most likely going to win in the general election and who the people want so they might change their mind if they spoke too soon!

rjohnson

Sparkle, There is no question of whether superdelegates (called unpledged delegates in the Republican party) are _needed_; they are always awarded. It's not akin to an extra vote if there's a tie or something. They are just a different type of delegate. There are two types of delegates: pledged, which are based on the popular vote and unpledged (called superdelegates in the Democrat party) which are votes cast by leaders within the party. Since superdelegates/unpledged delegates are usually (but not always) awarded later in the process they can be the deciding delegates in a race that was pretty neck and neck to that point. But, they are awarded no matter what....there isn't some thing or situation that triggers whether they are awarded.

sparkle

so how is it decided if a superdelegate vote is needed?

rjohnson

In the 2008 presidential primary, 1,191 delegates will be needed for a candidate to secure the Republican nomination. There are a total of 2,380 Republican delegates.

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    • The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.
      The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.