The opening afternoon session of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia was a rambunctious one. Lost in the clamor was an agreement by the forces of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to significantly revise the party rules related to the presidential nomination process. It sets the stage for the third significant overhaul of those rules in the last 50 years and will define who wins and who loses future Democratic nomination battles. While Bernie Sanders will not be around as a candidate in those elections, candidates like him will be advantaged.
That Monday afternoon, Sanders delegates and supporters were loud and unified in their frustration with a Democratic National Committee for its perceived bias toward the Clinton nomination. Within that din, the Sanders campaign won two significant victories. First, as we heard numerous times throughout the convention, the Democratic Party ratified “the most progressive platform in the party’s history,” with significant shifts on the minimum wage, regulation of Wall Street, political money and student debt — all propelled by the Sanders campaign. Second, the party agreed to create a “unity commission” to revise nomination rules. While these rules will be drafted over the next couple of years and must be ratified by the Democratic National Committee, motions adopted at the convention mandate that such rules must reduce the influence of superdelegates in the nomination process by at least two-thirds.
Tinkering with Democratic nomination rules began in the aftermath of the 1968 process through which Hubert Humphrey was able to win the nomination without entering a single primary contest. The supporters of progressives like Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, who had dominated the 1968 Democratic primaries, won a consolation prize with the party’s commitment to revise party rules for future nomination processes. Sen. George McGovern co-chaired the McGovern-Fraser Commission that modernized the rules through which delegates were selected for future conventions. These rule changes — which required the linking of the votes in primaries and caucuses to delegate allocations and also required that those delegates reflect the party demographically — ensured that traditional outsiders in politics would have an ongoing role in the party, to the detriment of party bosses.
While the core of those reforms remain in place, “superdelegates” were introduced following the contentious nomination battle of 1980 between President Jimmy Carter and Edward Kennedy. Carter locked up sufficient delegates early in the nomination cycle to ultimately ensure him the nomination, but many perceived Carter to be a weaker candidate in the general election context against Ronald Reagan. After the 1980 election, North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt chaired a commission that created “superdelegates” — elected officials and other party leaders who are explicitly unbound to any candidate, allowing them, when the party is closely divided, to support the most electable candidate at the time of the convention. “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,” the commission’s report stated. These unpledged delegates now make up just under 15 percent of all delegates.
While superdelegates have never deviated from the will of bound delegates since their creation, they often do give an establishment candidate — like Clinton — a significant head start in the process, making the path to nomination more complicated for an outsider candidate. The system was particularly aggravating to Sanders supporters, many of whom were new to electoral politics and cynical of the voting power of superdelegates, who they considered elites. Thus, the strong efforts to swing the pendulum back toward a purer voice for rank-and-file activists through the total elimination of superdelegates. The effort to completely eliminate superdelegates failed, but the Clinton and Sanders delegates reached a compromise to reduce their influence, by reducing their numbers.
Hillary Clinton had little to lose in such a deal. Her campaign anticipates that she will be an incumbent running for reelection in 2020 and would not be impacted by such rules. In the election cycles to follow, however, candidates with grassroots support in an increasingly progressive Democratic Party will be better positioned than in any election cycle since McGovern won the 1972 nomination with the rules he helped write.