Unpacking the Role of the Superdelegate in the Democratic Party Primary

It was at the 2008 New Hampshire Primary that Hillary Clinton "found [her] own voice." Eight years later, the Granite State delivered one of the worst defeats of her political career.

But despite coming away with less than 40 percent of the vote, Clinton will most likely receive a majority of the support of New Hampshire's 32 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

This narrative is political spin, but the explanation is pretty simple: Hillary has support from six of the eight of New Hampshire's superdelegates.

Hillary does not have just the support of New Hampshire's superdelegates; the vast majority of superdelegates around the country have committed themselves to Hillary.

The perceived inherent advantage for the Hillary campaign has rocketed superdelegates to the forefront of discussion, both on social media and on news coverage. The Democratic Party primary system, just like the electoral college, is misunderstood and rather opaque.

Many seem to take the superdelegate system at face-value, without digging too deep, accepting it as a quirk of the party or a predetermined mechanism rigged to favor Hillary. But in order to fully understand the superdelegate system, and ultimately weigh its current value, it's necessary to explore why it exists in the first place.

The late Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, an architect of the superdelegate, penned a staunch defense of the system in 2008 for The New York Times:

"The superdelegates were created to lead, not to follow. They were, and are, expected to determine what is best for our party and best for the country."

In 2016, this perspective seems increasingly hard to fathom. The past decade has been dominated by debate over growing inequality in all facets of society. Yet still, the Democratic Party, which claims to champion the voice of the working class and minorities, has an electoral system that gives unequal power to the party elite.

But for Ferraro, and many Democratic elders, the superdelegate is not a means of leverage, but a failsafe from a time of chaos and turmoil.

In 1968 the Democratic Party, and even the nation itself, seemed on the brink of collapse: President Lyndon B. Johnson had declined to run for reelection, America was losing the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated mid-campaign.

The disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago ended with pro-war Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey as the nominee. He had never entered a single primary, and 80 percent of primary voters had voted for anti-war candidates. Humphrey was soundly defeated by Richard Nixon's "law and order" campaign, and the Democratic Party quickly formed the McGovern-Fraser commission to repair the clearly broken system.

The response was even worse than before. The McGovern-Fraser commission gave too much power to political outsiders, pushing the party dialogue far left, and creating a number of delegate controversies in states like Illinois and California. McGovern was nominated thanks to a powerful grassroots campaign, and the Democratic Party elites could only watch in horror as McGovern was trounced in a landslide by Richard Nixon.

At the next presidential election in 1976, the relatively unknown Jimmy Carter was able to defeat the incumbent President Gerald Ford. In a maelstrom of controversy following the Watergate Scandal, Ford had only managed to secure his nomination during the Republican Party Convention by the narrowest of margins. Through two defeats, Democratic Party strategists learned the hard way that an image of party unity was key to general election success.

Four years later, the party's primary rules came to head in an ugly and brutish primary race between Ted Kennedy and President Carter. The incumbent Carter had jumped to an early lead, mainly thanks to the "rally 'round the flag" effect of the Iran Hostage Crisis. However, as the DNC approached, Carter's failed hostage rescue and increasing impatience from the American public lead to Kennedy sweeping the final set of primaries.

At the 1980 DNC, Kennedy delegates bitterly advocated for the delegates' right to abandon their pledges to Carter. Only on the penultimate day of the convention did Kennedy concede, but the damage was done. The 1972 McGovern defeat was to be overshadowed by Carter's defeat to Ronald Reagan, who won with the highest number of electoral votes ever won by a non-incumbent presidential candidate.

In order to avoid the fiasco of 1980, the Hunt Commission was created, according to Governor Jim Hunt, to "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."

The result was the "unpledged delegate," created to represent the establishment and agenda of the Democratic Party and its ideals. Comprised of "Party Leaders and Elected Officials," the superdelegate is supposed to prevent the party from the election flops of Carter and McGovern, providing support to a candidate who is most likely to win with the general public.

But the chaos of those years is now the past. The Democratic Convention, as a publicity vehicle, has waned. In 2010, the DNC Rules and Bylaws committee reconsidered superdelegates -- but very quietly. The result was a decrease of superdelegates from 20 percent to 15 percent of the total. Committee co-chair James Roosevelt Jr. provided a rather convoluted reasoning for retaining the system:

People ask: isn't it enough for folks to have floor privileges and a hotel room and not have an actual vote? The answer is: what you're doing is creating two classes of delegates, people with the vote and people without the vote. Clearly, the people at the grassroots level should be the predominant voice. But if you don't give elected officials a real voice, they are basically second-class citizens.

It's a confused statement with fundamentally flawed logic; only in some alternative dimension would party leaders like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama feeling like second-class citizens on the floor of the Democratic Convention.

The superdelegate exists for a reason, and a rather sound one. The Democratic Party, and parties in general, are not some divine institution enshrined in the Constitution. It's a political machine, designed to propel a party agenda. However, when the system seemingly clashes with the ideals behind the party and the potential threat of party disarray has faded, the superdelegate seems like an insalubrious vestige of the past.

For Hillary, the current status of the superdelegate system might be a strange instance of cruel irony: The term "superdelegate" was coined by Susan Estrich, who argued that predominantly white and male unpledged delegates could marginalize women and minorities. In 2016 the reality of superdelegates has flipped, placing Hillary Clinton -- who put 18 million cracks in the glass-ceiling in 2008 -- as the perceived oppressive establishment candidate taking advantage of the superdelegate.