2020 presidential election

Is Chaotic 2020 the Right Time for Democrats to Neuter Superdelegates?

DNC chairman Tom Perez helps close off a 2016 controversy, but could be creating problems for 2020. Photo: George Frey/Getty Images

Accompanied by less controversy than some of the news coverage indicated going into the event, the Democratic National Committee approved changes in the presidential nominating process in their summer meeting in Chicago over the weekend. The most notable change, proposed by the Unity Reform Commission set up during the 2016 Democratic convention to smooth over relations between Clinton and Sanders supporters, basically demoted 700-some-odd unelected superdelegates (elected officials and DNC members) from voters on the first ballot of the 2020 convention to “privileged observers.”

The reform allows superdelegates to continue to have their automatic status, but to lose their first vote on the convention floor. If no presidential candidate has a majority of delegates sewn up on the first vote (which has not happened in more than half a century), then superdelegates can vote on subsequent ballots.

Yes, there was some heartburn (papered over by a vote of acclamation) among minority superdelegates that the reform diluted their influence in the party. But in terms of representing a sort of glittering fool’s-gold concession to still-angry Sandernistas who thought the manifest lack of neutrality among party Establishment figures (including superdelegates) had an impact on what happened in 2016, it got the job done. And aside from helping heal that still-raw wound, you could argue that reducing the influence of superdelegates redressed an overreaction in the early 1980s to the sudden power of grassroots activists and rank-and-file voters that led to the creation of this elite group of convention voters in the first place. Since no presidential nomination has ever been vetoed or decided by superdelegates, who needs ’em?

That all makes abundant good sense, but you do have to wonder if after nine presidential cycles utilizing the superdelegate system, Democrats chose precisely the wrong time to abolish it.

Superdelegates attracted significant scrutiny in the unusually close nominating contests of 2008 and 2016. Before that, they really only drew attention in the first year of their deployment, in 1984, when their value was not so much in determining the outcome but preventing it from going into extreme overtime:

In 1984, superdelegates proved to be helpful in getting Walter Mondale past the threshold he needed to achieve an outright majority of delegates, thereby avoiding a brokered convention. However, in all probability the superdelegates did not alter the outcome of the election; Mondale had a clear plurality of pledged delegates at the time. There is an outside chance that Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson could have teamed together to defeat him, but it would have required near-perfect coordination, and would arguably have usurped the public will, as Mondale had a substantive lead in the national polls. Thus, initially at least (and notwithstanding Mondale’s eventual defeat), superdelegates were regarded as a helpful innovation.  

It is in this capacity of being able to deliver a coup de grâce to stubborn losers that superdelegates had some theoretical value in later cycles. And it is a service that is more likely to be relevant in 2020 than perhaps in any prior Democratic presidential nominating contest.

At this early juncture, the 2020 Democratic field has the potential to become the largest in history. An overview by the Washington Post in June listed 33 potential candidates, not counting such more-recently mentioned possibilities as Stormy Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti, who has actually made appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire. There’s an obvious two-word reason for the proliferation of people seeing the next president of the United States in the mirror: Donald Trump. If he’s qualified and electable, all sorts of rich and powerful people think, why not me? And additionally, 2020 looks like a good year to be running on the Democratic ticket, given the high likelihood of an electorate tired if not disgusted by four years of MAGA.

A megafield with no obvious front-runners and a lot of well-financed underdogs (a distinct possibility with multiple billionaires thinking about a run) could make 2020 the year when that often-discussed but always remote possibility, a contested (or to use the more lurid term, “brokered”) convention, finally arrives. Yes, the large 2016 Republican field eventually produced a preconvention nominee despite the initially strong resistance to Trump. But Republicans had and still have distinct features in their nominating process (notably primaries and caucuses with winner-take-all-or-most procedures) that make it immensely easier for front-runners to gain a majority of delegates. Democrats insist on strict proportionality of the popular vote in delegate awards, which is enough of a problem in two-candidate races like 2000, 2008, and 2016, but can become paralyzing if “winnowing the field” means getting rid of 15 candidates while 10 sojourn on. Superdelegates with a first-ballot vote would make that prospect less likely — not to mention the nightmare scenario of some Democratic analogue to Trump (hard to imagine that, but it’s always possible) getting within reach of a nomination in 2020.

It is true that in a deadlocked 2020 convention superdelegates would regain their votes — and their power to make a decisive difference — on the second ballot and beyond. But that still would mean a frantic month or so after the primaries ended and the the convention (scheduled for July 13–16 in Houston, Miami, or Milwaukee) begins. The backroom negotiating and potential special-interest deals that could happen in that scenario would make the elitism of the superdelegate system as it existed in 2016 look benign and transparent by comparison.

All in all, it might have been safer if Democrats had waited until 2024 to neutralize superdelegates — or until such time as they are willing to reform the nominating process in more fundamental ways to make the formation of a majority easier. Unleashing 700-plus superdelegates in the second round of a deeply divided convention is going to upset a lot more people than leaving them uncommitted earlier in the process. And the race to defeat Donald Trump is already going to be wild enough.

Is 2020 the Right Time to Neuter Democratic Superdelegates?