Superdelegate 101
A primer for Democratic-party watchers.


Political historian Alvin Felzenberg took some questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez in the run-up to the Potomac Primary, which is expected to put Barack Obama further ahead of former “inevitable” nominee Hillary Clinton. She is still a woman with a plan, Felzenberg warns.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is a “superdelegate” in the Democratic party?

Alvin Felzenberg: A superdelegate is a person appointed to state delegations after voters have chosen among delegates to Democratic conventions in primary elections. While most elected delegates have pledged to support a specific candidate on the first ballot, some run on “uncommitted slates.” Superdelegates comprise approximately 20 percent of the number of delegates necessary to designate a presidential nominee. After the chaos that ensued at the Democratic national convention in Chicago (both inside the hall and out) and the circus activists committed to peacenik George McGovern put on in 1972, pressure arose within the party to designate a certain number of grown-ups to maintain at least a semblance of decorum. Party elders became apoplectic when a college student committed to McGovern defeated Averell Harriman for delegate in the New York primary, a McGovernite majority denied Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and his delegation seating at the convention, efforts by feminists to foist a Texas politician Cissy Farenthold onto McGovern’s ticket, delaying McGovern’s delivery of Bob Shrum’s prepared acceptance speech into the wee hours of the morning.

After a little-known peanut farmer from the state of Georgia by the name of Jimmy Carter won the nomination by taking advantage of rules that, for the first time allocated delegates on a proportional basis, party elders decided to take action. (“Jimmy Carter cannot be president,” proclaimed the same Averell Harriman. “I don’t know him.”) By 1984, Democrats decided that there would be a sufficient number of Harrimans at their convention even if voters decided otherwise. In the ensuing years, an increasing number of party big shots, eager to escape the embarrassment of having their neighbors reject them at the polls, opted to attend as superdelegates. These voter-shy delegates can be present and former officials, party donors, celebrities, or seasoned political operatives.

Lopez: How does one get to be a superdelegate?

Felzenberg: State delegations select the superdelegates. These are highly coveted spots. All who hold them come to them by virtue of a powerful sponsor or through the personal prestige they have developed over decades of service to the party or through their celebrity status.

Lopez: How was Joe Lieberman a superdelegate, even after getting dumped from the party?

Felzenberg: The Joe Lieberman story continues to fascinate. Even though a self-financed antiwar candidate, buoyed by what may well have been a once in a lifetime uptick in turnout on the part of liberal activists, managed to defeat Lieberman in the Connecticut senatorial primary in 2006, “fighting Joe” remains the favorite of most local and state officials and party regulars. These are the people who once made the Democratic party the voice of the middle class, those who aspired to enter the middle class, as well as Catholics, Jews, blacks, ethnic whites, and organized labor. (Reagan understood them well and got their votes.) They, and not Ned Lamont and the bloggers, tend to party affairs in Connecticut year in and year out. They control the party apparatus and name the superdelegates. (It was also they, together with a good number of Republicans, who worked to return Lieberman to the Senate by an overwhelming margin.)

Lieberman’s presence at the Democratic convention may prove especially significant. Having endorsed John McCain for president in Republican primaries (in which he could not vote), Senator Lieberman can be expected to be asked whether he intends to support the Democratic party’s presidential nominee in the fall election. If he says “no,” Lieberman can expect at least one of his tormentors on the Left to challenge his right to be a serve as a superdelegate. (National and state party rules require that those holding party posts pledge to support its nominees. Lieberman obviously did not do this in Connecticut.) How the senator answers this question can impact on the partisan lineup that currently runs the United States Senate. At present, because Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats, the Democrats control the Senate 51-49.

Six decades ago, after Wisconsin Republican Senator Robert La Follette bolted the GOP to wage a third- party campaign for president against incumbent Republican President Calvin Coolidge, the Republican senators voted to strip La Follette and the handful of senators who supported him of their seniority and their committee chairmanships. Were the Democrats to do the same this year, Lieberman could well opt to caucus with the Republicans. (This, in effect, would be a replay of the once Republican Jim Jeffords’s decision to caucus with Democrats in 2001.) If the Democrats opted not to press the issue in the midst of a presidential election, they would be admitting to themselves and to the world, what readers of this website and magazine already know — that they put no principle ahead of their lust for power. (No wonder Congress’s rating is as low as it is.)

[POST-PUBLICATION  CLARIFICATION: Lieberman has been stripped of his superdelegate status.]

Lopez: Why don’t Republicans have superdelegates?