Superdelegate woes

As the 2016 primaries continue, the progress of candidates is often being measured based on the current delegate count. But many have noticed that in the Democratic Party primaries, Secretary Clinton has more delegates than the number she has earned from primary results. This is because she has the support of the vast majority of “superdelegates,” a part of the delegate system made up of politicians and other important figures in the Democratic Party. These delegates have no official obligation to support a candidate based on popular vote.

This has caused some controversy, particularly from supporters of Senator Sanders who are upset that their candidate is not receiving a delegate count directly proportional to his support. The idea of Bernie being behind based on Hillary’s party establishment support plays right into their rhetoric – the election process is rigged. This is an understandable viewpoint looking at the superdelegate system on paper, but it is important to know why the system exists and the actual impact it has had.

Before 1968, Democratic nominees were chosen at conventions, and the choice could be made without regard to primary results at all (although this rarely occurred). However, after a less-than-civil Democratic convention that year, the party created a nomination system that allowed delegates, pledged to support whomever their people voted for, go to the convention and nominate the winner. Superdelegates aside, this system still exists in both major parties today.

However, general elections in both 1972 and 1980 resulted in landslide defeats for Democratic presidential nominees. Both had been nominated by this system without necessarily having widespread establishment popularity. In response to this, Democrats implemented the “superdelegate” system so that party leaders and politicians could have more say in the process.

Since then, there has been continued debate about whether superdelegates have made a real difference, and whether they should even exist. Generally, in past elections, their actual impact on the primary’s results has been minimal. In 2008, a large majority of superdelegates supported Hillary Clinton early on, but most voluntarily switched to Barack Obama when it became clear he would be the nominee. While it is unclear whether that would happen for Bernie Sanders, who is not even a member of the Democratic Party in the Senate, it is still unlikely that the superdelegates would actually change the outcome of the primaries on paper. They only represent about one-fifth of the delegates, and tend to rally around the nominee in the end.

The real question should not be as much about the impact of superdelegates on the delegate count, but the impact they have on both a candidate’s image. A candidate with widespread superdelegate support generally has the image of someone that the Democratic Party not only supports, but also feels has a better chance of winning the general election. Secretary Clinton having this image will likely cause some voters to support her in fear of a Republican becoming president if they support Senator Sanders. However, it is clear that Sanders supporters not only take his lack of superdelegate support with a grain of salt, but they also like the fact that this labels him as an “outsider” without the backing of the establishment. In the end, superdelegate count will likely have little effect on the primary results.

The Republican Party does not have a superdelegate system at all, yet we are currently witnessing the same effect that the system would have if it did exist. As Trump gains traction and Senator Rubio seems to be the only “establishment” candidate with any chance of winning (even if it is a low chance), most Republican politicians and party leaders are rallying around Senator Rubio. In the case of the Republican primaries, their support will have little impact on the actual election results. What it will do is make clear the fact that the Republican establishment feels their views align with Rubio, and more importantly, not with Trump.

Whether a superdelegate system exists or not has little impact on the popular vote, and overall delegates. What does have an impact, however, is the image of party establishment support, whether that comes with a superdelegate or not. Historically, that has been a major benefit for candidates, but in this year’s election, it could be just as much a downfall. Establishment support is being looked down upon by many voters of both parties, particularly Sanders and Trump supporters. We should not be debating whether superdelegates should exist as much as we should be debating whether establishment support should be relevant.

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