The spirited race between Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has thrust the role of so-called superdelegates into the daily political discourse, with Sanders pegging his hopes on securing the party’s nomination by persuading enough of the elite delegates to back his bid. Here’s a primer on how the superdelegate system works:
Q: What is a superdelegate?
A: Superdelegates, also known as unbound delegates, are 719 Democratic Party leaders ranging from former presidents to longtime party activists, who are free to pledge their support to a presidential nominee based on their own personal preference. Unlike the 4,051 “pledged delegates” — state delegates who are elected to their posts during the primary elections — superdelegates are not mandated to select a candidate based on the outcome of their state’s primary.
Republicans also have superdelegates, but they wield less influence than their Democratic counterparts because the GOP’s rules mandate they tie their convention-floor votes to the outcome of the state’s election. The Republican National Committee appoints three superdelegates per state.
Q: What spurred the creation of superdelegates?
A : The Democratic Party began overhauling its presidential nominating process after the contentious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Protesters rioted outside of the convention hall as party insiders selected then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the party’s nominee over Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, even though Humphrey had not competed in any of the state primaries.
Humphrey eventually lost to Republican Richard Nixon, spurring the party to form the McGovern-Fraser Commission to develop an open nominating process. The panel’s recommendations were put into play during the 1972 convention — convention delegates were voted upon during the primary elections and caucuses, and gender, age and racial quotas were established to ensure a diverse mix of delegates.
But under the new system, Democrats experienced crushing losses, first in 1972 when nominee George McGovern lost all but one state to Nixon, and in 1980 when incumbent Jimmy Carter was defeated by Republican Ronald Reagan.
Party leaders established the Hunt Commission in 1981, which recommended the party add a class of convention delegates that would be composed of elected officials and longtime party activists who could be more strategic about selecting a nominee with the best likelihood of winning in the general election.
From the 1980s onward, the new system functioned without issue because a presumptive nominee usually emerged long before the convention. But 2008’s tight race between Clinton and Barack Obama brought the role of superdelegates to the forefront as both fought to be the first to cross the 2,383-delegate threshold, said Meena Bose, director of Hofstra University’s Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency.
“With 2008 and 2016 we’ve had major case studies about what the delegates do, what power the delegates have, and how the process works,” Bose said.
Q: Who are New York’s Democratic superdelegates?
A: New York has 44 Democratic superdelegates, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Long Islanders on the list include Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills), Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs and Democratic National Committeeman Robert Zimmerman, a public relations executive who lives in Great Neck.
“I believe it is my responsibility and the responsibility of all of the delegates to ensure that we do right by the Democratic Party and nominate the candidate we believe has earned it, by the work her or she has done, and who will be the best candidate to run in the general election,” said Jacobs, a longtime Clinton supporter.
Q: What is the likelihood that Sanders can flip enough superdelegates to secure the nomination?
A: Political experts say it’s highly unlikely that Sanders will manage to persuade enough superdelegates to switch their support, because his case for being the stronger nominee is weakened as he trails Clinton in both the delegate count and popular vote.
Clinton, who has amassed 3.1 million more votes than Sanders this primary season, needs 184 delegates to secure the nomination, compared to the 982 Sanders needs to cross the party’s 2,383-delegate threshold.
Sanders has often said if superdelegates were stripped from the total count, the gulf between him and Clinton would not be as wide — even so, Clinton holds a lead of 321 pledged delegates heading into the remaining primaries that will take place between May 7 and June 14.
His campaign has said he would need to win 66 percent of the remaining 1,114 pledged delegates up for grabs in 13 upcoming primary contests for a shot at the nomination, but polls show Clinton leading in New Jersey, Montana and California, where 546 are at play.
“If Sanders were to win 100 percent of the pledged delegates, then maybe some of the superdelegates would flip, but it seems like an unlikely outcome,” said Shana Kushner Gadarian, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. “Even if Clinton is relying solely on pledged delegates, she has a huge advantage.”
Of the 718 superdelegates heading to the party’s July convention, 522 have said they will support Clinton, compared to 39 for Sanders, while the remainder have not publicly endorsed a candidate. Experts say even if Sanders were to win more than two-thirds of the pledged delegates in the upcoming primary races, he would then have to persuade more than 300 of the undecided delegates and Clinton supporters to back his bid.
“Impressive as Bernie Sanders’ insurgency has been, the nomination will belong to Hillary Clinton,” Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, wrote in his popular “Crystal Ball” blog that tracks the campaign.