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What Are Super-Delegates?

2008 Democratic Presidential Race

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The Democratic Party has three types of delegates; two types are elected at the state level. The third is less well publicized or understood: the super-delegate.

What Are Political Party Delegates?

Delegates are people who attend a political party national convention and who elect the party nominee. Some states select delegates during a Presidential primary and others during caucuses; some states also have a state convention where national convention delegates are selected. Some delegates represent state congressional districts; some are "at large" and represent the entire state. The Democratic party also has a third type: super-delegates. A super-delegate is a leader in the National Democratic Party who has a vote at the national convention; they not selected by state party members.

A candidate needs 2,025 delegates for the nomination. Pledged (not super delegate) delegate estimate (19 May 2008):

  • Clinton: 1,442.5
  • Obama: 1,612.5

Who Are Super-Delegates?

Super-delegates (approximately 850 in 2008) include the following:
  • Elected members of the Democratic National Committee (~450)
  • Democratic Governors
  • Democratic US Senators and US Representatives (including non-voting delegates)
  • Distinguished party leaders (current and former Presidents and Vice Presidents; former Democratic leaders of the Senate and House; former DNC chairmen)
  • Unpledged "add-on's" chosen by the DNC
Source: Green Papers

Rationale For Super-Delegates

The Democratic Party established this system in part in response to the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. McGovern took only one state and had only 37.5 percent of the popular vote. Then in 1976, Jimmy Carter was a dark-horse candidate with little national experience. Super-delegates were implemented in 1984.

Super-delegates are designed to act as a check on ideologically extreme or inexperienced candidates. It also gives power to people who have a vested interested in party policies: elected leaders. Because the primary and caucus voters do not have to be active members of the party (in New Hampshire they can sign up and sign out going-and-coming at the polls), the super-delegate system has been called a safety-value.

Importance of Super-Delegates

The Democratic Party allocates delegates based on a state's Presidential vote in the prior three elections and the number of electors. In addition, states that hold their primaries or caucuses later in the cycle receive bonus delegates.

It has been 30 years since the Democratic Party had a cliffhanger going into the Convention. If there is no clear winner after state primaries and caucuses, then the super-delegates -- who are bound only by their consciences -- will decide the nominee.

Super-Delegates In 2004

In 2004, Vermont Governor Howard Dean had the longest list of super-delegates of any candidate as the primary season kicked off in Iowa. One of those was Rep. Tom Harkin (D-IA) who said: "In my entire adult lifetime, I have never seen anyone broaden our party and bring people in and excite young people... like Governor Howard Dean." Whether it was his loss in Iowa or the "Dean Scream" broadcast over-and-over on TV, he began losing super-delegates shortly after Iowa. Within two weeks, he had lost 36 of his 132 super-delegates.

Super-Delegates In 2008

In 2008, a candidate needs 2,025 votes to win the Democratic presidential nomination. There are about 850 super-delegates.

Roll Call keeps a list of Congressional endorsements, or see this list at CNN and this one at Democratic Convention Watch.

Both 2004 nominees, Sen. John Kerry and former Sen. John Edwards, have endorsed Sen. Obama.

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