Analysis & Opinions - Harvard Kennedy School

A History of 'Super-Delegates' in the Democratic Party

| February 14, 2008


(The following is adapted from "Structure as Strategy: Presidential Nominating Politics Since Reform," a doctoral dissertation submitted to the political science department of the University of California, Berkeley in 1986.)

Lessons of the 1980 Democratic convention and nomination race were not lost on the member of the Hunt Commission (named for its Chair Governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina) as they met to write delegate selection rules for the 1984 nomination season. The 1980 race had concluded in an especially bitter and contentious convention fight between President Jimmy Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy. The convention fight had centered upon Rule 11 (H) that bound delegates to support the candidate in whose name they were elected. Senator Kennedy’s campaign, in an effort to convince Carter delegates that they should abandon Carter and support him, waged a series of platform and rules challenges culminating in the fight over Rule 11 (H).

In short order the Commission agreed to get rid of the controversial Rule 11(H) and replace it with a less intrusive rule, but one that, nevertheless, urged delegates to vote for the presidential candidate they had been elected to support. The new 11 (H) read:

“Delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.”

(This rule exists today, in 2008, as Rule 12 (J) of the delegate selection rules and has not changed since.)

Yet the exorcism of Rule 11 (H) was not sufficient to solve the deep doubts about the nominating system that had arisen as the result of the bitter rules and platform fights at the 1980 Convention. Congressmen, stung by the lack of impact they had been able to have on the 1980 process, and fearing that 1984 would be a repeat, banded together to ask that 2/3 of the Democratic Members of the House be elected by the House Caucus as uncommitted voting delegates to the 1984 Convention. Led by Congressman Gillis Long, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Members asserted that they had a special role to play in the nomination process and in the platform process. In his testimony before the Hunt Commission, Long put the views of the Democratic Caucus as follows:

“We in the House, as the last vestige of Democratic Control at the national level, believe we have a special responsibility to develop new innovative approaches that respond to our Party’s constituencies." (Testimony before the Hunt Commission, November 6, 1981)

Governor Hunt, Chair of the Commission, also made the inclusion of more elected officials a top priority. In a statement that reflects the sense of helplessness with which many elected officials had watched the events of the 1980 nomination season, Hunt said,

“We must also give our convention more flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and, in cases where the voters’ mandate is less than clear, to make a reasoned choice. One step in this direction would be to loosen the much-disputed “binding” Rule 11 (H) as it applies to all delegates. An equally important step would be to permit a substantial number of party leader and elected official delegates to be selected without requiring a prior declaration of preference. We would then return a measure of decision-making power and discretion to the organized party and increase the incentive it has to offer elected officials for serious involvement.” (Remarks of Governor Jim Hunt, Institute of Politics, JFK School of Government, December 15, 1981)

Hunt was joined by the AFL-CIO and the Democratic State Chairs’ Association in calling for a plan whereby 30% of the 1984 convention would be composed of uncommitted delegates drawn from the ranks of party leaders and elected officials. Ironically, this number is close to the number of delegates (38%) who had gone into conventions “unaffiliated” in the pre-reform years. Only a large number of unbound delegates — who had not been required, by virtue of filing deadlines and fair reflection rules, to declare a presidential preference early — could return a modicum of flexibility or deliberativeness to the post-reform conventions.

Opposition to this proposal came from supporters of Senator Edward Kennedy (who, at the time was expected to make another run for the presidency) and from organized feminists. Kennedy supporters on the Commission feared that a large number of Senators and Congressmen at the convention could stop him. On the other hand, former Vice President Walter Mondale, felt certain that a large number of these delegates would favor him and his operatives, therefore, embraced the 30% number.

Organized feminists, on and off the Commission, however, make a new argument. Speaking on their behalf, Technical Advisory Committee Member Susan Estrich of Massachusetts argued that creating a new category of delegates who were not subject to the fair reflection and candidate right of approval rules would create a new status of delegate which she referred to as “super-delegates.” These delegates, argued Estrich, would be overwhelmingly white and male. Even were they balanced by an equal number of women in the total delegation — there would still be the problem of “equal power.” The “super-delegates” because of their greater flexibility in the choice of a nominee, would have greater power than the female delegates committed to presidential candidates. (“Unintended Consequences,” by Susan Estrich, Memorandum to the Hunt Commission, September 9, 1981.)

The issue was finally resolved through a compromise created by Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro. The Ferraro Proposal reduced the total number of un-pledged delegates to 566 or 14% of the Convention, but it left selection of the Congressional delegates in the hands of the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses. (See, Bringing Back the Parties, by David Price, Congressional Quarterly Press, 1984) The 14% number was far short of the original proposal that 30% of the convention be unpledged. However, if the number had been much larger, it would have been practically impossible to meet the equal division between men and women requirements in the rules.

Super-delegates today, in 2008, are no longer elected by congressional caucus. There have been some additions over the years and thus the total number of super delegates as a proportion of the convention has increased by about 5%.

Elaine Kamarck is a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government, and will serve as a super-delegate at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kamarck, Elaine.“A History of 'Super-Delegates' in the Democratic Party.” Harvard Kennedy School, February 14, 2008.