Do superdelegates help parties pick better candidates?

Students wait in long lines as register and vote at UW-Eau Claire Davies Center on Tuesday, April 5, 2016 in Eu Claire, Wis. Wisconsin voters are expected to turn out Tuesday in large numbers for the presidential primary and statewide races.(Dan Reiland/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP)

There has been much debate throughout the Democratic presidential nomination process about superdelegates and the power they hold in the Democratic primary. Superdelegates are 712 Democratic Party elites that are free to support either candidate, regardless of how their states or constituencies vote.

Many feel that this process is undemocratic and that these superdelegates should vote in line with the will of the people. Currently, a vast majority of superdelegates support Hillary Clinton, hardly a surprise given Bernie Sanders is widely considered anti-establishment and much farther to the left than most mainstream Democrats. While there is certainly a question of whether the superdelegate process is “fair,” it is worth examining whether superdelegates are even effective anymore.

The superdelegate system was implemented in 1982 by the Democratic National Committee in response to the failed elections of George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1980. These elections not only cost Democrats the presidency, but also negatively affected their performance in congressional elections.

The main priority of superdelegates is to “protect” the party from electing a radical candidate by allowing standing party members increased influence over the results of a primary. Carter and McGovern were both very popular with the more liberal base of the party, especially anti-war progressives. However, in a political primary, those who participate are usually more active and ideologically farther to the left or right. A candidate who resonates with these voters could do very well in a primary but fall short in a general election when voters holding more moderate ideologies come into play. This is the concern many have regarding Bernie Sanders today – that his idea of democratic socialism would be too far to the left for independent voters to support.

But the question both parties need to ask themselves is this: is it a more effective political strategy to galvanize one’s base or to appeal to independent and moderate voters? At first glance, it may seem like it’s obvious to appeal to independents. In the 2014 elections, the percentage of voters who identified as independents (http://bigthink.com/politeia/do-independent-voters-matter) was 39 percent, eclipsing both other political parties. The most important states in a presidential election are swing states, where neither party holds sway, and it seems that someone with a moderate platform would achieve greater success in such a situation.

However, being an independent does not always mean falling in the exact middle of the political spectrum, and those who are “true” independents are a small minority of the electorate. One study found that only five percent of voters identify as independent and are also ideologically moderate.  Research has shown that many voters just prefer not to identify with a party. Most independents lean towards one party or the other and have similar attitudes on issues to those who staunchly support their respective party. Therefore, an ideologically extreme candidate couldn’t expect to lose much support from those independents who lean towards their party.  

Another important factor when considering whether an elected candidate should be moderate or not is which voters actually turn out for elections. Groups that are overwhelmingly partisan are found to be much more politically engaged than other voters. A Pew study observed three voter blocs that they found to be most strongly aligned with the Democratic or Republican Party, and concluded that although these groups made up only 36 percent of the general public, they represent 43 percent of registered voters and 57 percent of those who regularly vote and follow government affairs. It could be assumed that the key voters in each party would vote for the candidate no matter what and allow said candidate to court moderates to increase support. However, it is also possible that motivating the party base to turn out in droves is a more effective strategy because they are more likely to engage in voting than groups considered to be more moderate.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle are conflicted by this question. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump believe that their movements will inspire enough people to vote each into office in a general election. At the same time, establishment politicians on each side are advocating for less extreme candidates as their best chance of winning. Regardless of the outcome, Democrats should reevaluate their superdelegate system. Aspects of it appear undemocratic to many both inside and outside of their own party, and partisan polarization has, at the very least, made moderate candidates less effective in general elections than they once were.


Jacob Kowalski is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.