Introduction / Metaphors
There are two ways for Democratic candidates to earn delegates who will vote for them at the national convention. The first way is to win enough of a percentage of a primary or caucus vote to gain a share of the pledged delegates. The second way to earn delegates to vote for you is to earn the endorsement of unpledged delegates (also known as superdelegates). These are the two ways to earn votes for use at the national convention.
Think of it like basketball or football.
When you play basketball, there are two ways you can score points, and all of the points that you score count. You can score with field goals and with free throws. Playing football, you know that all of your offensive points will count, touchdowns and field goals. Why? Because them’s the rules.
A long time ago, the Democratic Party made a rule allowing for pledged delegates and unpledged delegates (superdelegates). They both count, and they can both vote at the convention. Some of the reasons for these rules will be discussed below.
Definition: “Pledged” Delegate
So that we know exactly what we are talking about, let’s define our terms. A pledged delegate is an individual selected by the state Democratic Party to vote for a certain candidate at the Democratic National Convention. The pledged delegates† are divided proportionally according to the percentage of the vote each candidate received. For example, because of the percentage of the vote in Iowa, it looks like Secretary Clinton will end up with 23 pledged delegates, while Senator Sanders will likely have 21. These delegates will attend the national convention, and they will have to vote for the candidate they “represent.”
That doesn’t have to be the case, though. Rule VIII(C)(11)( c ) of the Delegate Selection Materials for the 2016 Democratic National Convention provides that, “All delegates to the National Convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.” So, there is a “good conscience” exception, even for delegates pledged to a certain candidate. That exception is rarely used, but it is there in case of emergency.
Definition: “Unpledged” Delegate (or Superdelegate)
There is no reference to “superdelgates” in the Delegate Selection Materials for the Democratic Party. What you think of as superdelegates are called “unpledged delegates.” They are called unpledged delegates because they can change their mind at any time, for any reason.
Only certain people can be unpledged delegates. The list includes current and former Democratic Presidents and Vice Presidents, current Democratic (federal) senators and representatives, former leaders or minority leaders of the federal congress, members of the Democratic National Committee, and current Democratic Governors.
But It’s So ******* Un-Democratic!
Making everything “Democratic” in a nation of 320 million people, while having to make decisions about complex issues such as national security and racism and police brutality and gun control and regulating financial institutions, would be impossible. Think about the un-Democratic nature of these processes: Our elected representatives (un-Democratic!) pass a law (un-Democratic!), which the President vetoes (un-Democratic!), but the legislature over-rides the veto (un-Democratic!), so the President’s executive branch agency issues rules interpreting and enforcing the law (un-Democratic!), until the Supreme Court finds the law unconstitutional (un-Democratic!).
Why do we do so many un-Democratic things? For a lot of reasons: There’s too many of us, the issues are too complex, we don’t have enough time, and we want checks and balances in place. Unpledged delegates act as a check and balance on the nomination process.
There are plenty of reasons for the unpledged delegates. Before we go any further, though, please consider this:
In the 1984 election, the major contenders for the presidential nomination were Gary Hart and Walter Mondale. Each won some primaries and caucuses. Mondale was only slightly ahead of Hart in the total number of votes cast but won the support of almost all superdelegates and became the nominee.
Gary Hart won twenty-six of the primaries or caucuses to only nineteen for Walter Mondale. So, shouldn’t Gary Hart be the winner? Check out this map:
That shows a solid Gary Hart win, doesn’t it? He even won the most square miles. Mondale's tally of nineteen states, in fact, includes Puerto Rico and “Democrats Abroad.” So, he actually only carried seventeen states. So the scoreboard should read, 26-17ish.
But wait. There’s more. It was actually Walter Mondale who won the popular vote by a decent margin: 6,952,912 to 6,504,842. (Jesse Jackson came in very respectable third with over three million votes, two states carried and the District of Columbia.).
So now the scoreboard is just a mess. What resolved the issue was unpledged delegates. Walter Mondale racked up the endorsements, and, more important for nomination purposes, he racked up the unpledged delegates:
“Mondale locked up virtually all the party’s 700 or so superdelegates even before the primary began. Hart likely would have lost anyway, but the superdelegates sealed his defeat. ‘I got almost none of them, because [Mondale] was considered inevitable,’ Hart told me.”
Some of Walter Mondale’s superdelegates included people like Jimmy Carter and Tom Harkin. But why did Mondale lock up almost all of the unpledged delegates? Was it because he was “inevitable,” or was it because with Hart heading the ticket, the results would have been more disastrous? What happened in 1984 was the incumbent President Reagan won re-election easily, but the Democrats, while losing some seats, still maintained a commanding majority in the House of Representatives and gained two seats in the Senate.
Or, could it be that unpledged delegates, having worked with him, or worked with people who knew him, had figured out Gary Hart’s secret or heard rumors and worried that it would come out during a general election?
I don’t know. Still, having a system with unpledged delegates seems like a good idea. Consider a couple of hypotheticals:
The candidate leading in the Democratic Primary race is obviously incapacitated. Yet, he already has a healthy pledged delegate lead over his chief rival. He will not appear in public, but in the few instances in which he must, there are apparent and drastic health or other issues. He will not drop out or suspend his campaign. Unpledged delegates can nip that problem in the bud.
Donald Trump paid his filing fee to run as a Democrat in the 2016 election. He assured everybody early on that all of his Birther nonsense was just a joke. He even quipped that good friends Dionne Warwick and Star Jones—actual black people—women no less!—would vouch for him. A month before Iowa, he came out with his misogyny, racism and xenophobia. Cross-over voters still flocked to the polls, and he won Iowa in a four-person race with thirty percent of the vote. Unpledged delegates could nip that problem in the bud.
When to Protest the Rules
The rules regarding pledged and unpledged delegates were published by the Democratic Party many months before any kind of voting takes place. If you didn’t like the rules, that would have been a good time to complain. After the voting begins? Not such a good time. The rules came out on December 15, 2014.
“Hillary Clinton Campaigned For”
I believe that Secretary Clinton earned these unpledged delegates based on her hard work for the Democratic party, fund-raising and campaigning for Democrats across the country. I don’t know how to prove this without subpoenaing the calendars of both candidates. However, I tried this: Type in “Hillary Clinton campaigned for” in your search engine and see what you find. Be sure to use the quotation marks as you don’t want too many extraneous results.
Then, do the same for “Bernie Sanders campaigned for” in your search engine. There were a number of names of Democrats that popped up in the Secretary Clinton search. She has been hitting the pavement for Democrats! On the other hand, the Bernie Sanders search found most of all, this: “Bernie Sanders campaigned for President.”
Okay, That’s Not a Well-Designed Research Project, But Heed My Lecture:
Secretary Clinton earned those unpledged delegates.
She put in onerous hours of work on behalf of the Democratic Party fund-raising and campaigning across the country. Those people know her.
She has earned the right to claim those delegates now. Sure, the unpledged delegates can change their minds, but so can pledged delegates “in good conscience.” It has happened before. But to diminish the hard work that woman put in is shameful.
It is up to Senator Sanders to take them away from her. As long as the vote remains close, that will never happen because those unpledged delegates want the best for the Democratic Party, they want the Party’s down-ballot candidates to win so that they can re-claim majority status, and they want to win themselves.
There are two ways to score delegates in this system, much like basketball’s field goals and free throws. Senator Sanders seems to be decent at scoring field goals—at least on his home court in Iowa and New Hampshire—but he sucks at free throws.
That doesn’t mean free throws don’t count.
† There are different types of pledged delegates, including regular pledged delegates, at large delegates, pledged party leader delegates and elected official delegates. They are all combined here for simplicity’s sake because they all pledge to support a certain candidate, and because they are all given proportionally to each candidate depending on that candidate’s share of the primary or caucus vote. See Delegate Selection Materials, Rule 10(C); see also id. at Rule 9(B)(3)(candidate “preferences shall be ascertained”).