Home Opinion Superdelegates Played a Key Role in the 2016 Presidential Race

Superdelegates Played a Key Role in the 2016 Presidential Race


By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University

During the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made repeated reference to Democratic Party “superdelegates,” almost all of whom supported his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He said the superdelegates represented the “good ole boy” system that made the nomination process appear rigged.

DNC Leaders Sought to Keep Populist Candidates from the Nomination

For years Democratic National Committee (DNC) leaders sought a say in deciding the party’s nominee for president. They wanted to make sure that a populist candidate who could not get elected or who did not represent the core values of the Democratic Party was not the nominee. In 1980, President Carter was overwhelmingly denied a second term by Ronald Reagan. So, in 1982, the DNC created superdelegates, also known as unpledged delegates, in its party nomination process.

For the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination process, there were 716 superdelegates. They consisting of 20 Democratic Party Leaders (DPLs), who were current and former presidents, and vice presidents, and congressional leaders; 191 House Democrats; 47 Democratic Senators; 21 Democratic governors; and 437 DNC elected members.

Clinton Held the Majority of Superdelegates at the Democrats’ Convention

Of these 716 superdelegates, only 10 were pledged to support Sanders, while 570 were pledged to support Clinton. Most of the rest did not commit.  Prior to the 2016 election, Sanders was a registered Independent who only caucused with the Senate Democrats.

To put the superdelegates in perspective, they represented about 20 percent or less of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention. The percentage varies from election to election for many reasons, including deaths, retirements, election results and other causes.

In 2016, superdelegates represented only 15 percent of all voting delegates. However, superdelegates gave Clinton a sizeable lead at the beginning of the race for the Democratic nomination. Such momentum is hard to derail, particularly with the all-important financial donors.

As a result of negotiations between Sanders and Clinton, the number of superdelegates for the 2020 presidential election will be limited to only members of Congress, governors and DPLs. That amounts to about one third fewer than in 2016.

In the end, although Clinton won most of the superdelegates and regular delegates to secure the Democratic nomination, she ran against an unconventional populist Republican candidate, Donald Trump.

It is ironic that the superdelegates system that ensured the Democratic Party nominated a solid presidential candidate with impeccable credentials, the Republican Party, without a comparable superdelegates system, ended up selecting a candidate with no political experience. The rest is history.

It is interesting to contemplate what might have happened if the Republicans had a similar superdelegates system in place for the 2016 presidential election. Perhaps Republican superdelegates would have pledged to Jeb Bush much as their Democratic counterparts did for Hillary Clinton. If that had happened, Trump might not have secured the Republican nomination.

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. His book about military base closures was published in 2009.