The morning after the New Hampshire primary, I took to the internet to check the results from the previous night. Glancing at the top of the New York Times’ Primary Results and Calendar page, I did a double-take. A chart of total delegates won had Trump with 17, Cruz with ten, Rubio with seven, and the rest of the Republicans somewhere between one and four. The difference between the Democrats was quite a bit larger: Sanders only had 42 to Hillary’s 394.
I quickly became embarrassed by my apparent lack of political efficacy. Bernie tied in Iowa right? And didn’t he win New Hampshire? Did I miss some primary with hundreds of delegates up for grabs?
No, I didn’t. I hadn’t accounted for the one forgettable yet influential aspect of primary elections: superdelegates. These delegates are unpledged up until the party convention. Unlike the regular delegates, these consist of the party elite and, at least among the Democrats, do not have to follow the will of their state when casting their vote; the choice is entirely up to them.
The inclusion of these delegates in reports seemed to skew the results. Somehow Sanders and Clinton were leaving New Hampshire with the same amount of delegates from the Granite State when Sanders had captured over sixty percent of the popular vote, and Bernie supporters were not happy. All of a sudden, superdelegates became talked about for the first time since the 2008 primary, when then-Senator Clinton responded to then-Senator Obama’s surge by courting superdelegates, leading to considerable criticism.
Twitter reacted strongly, as #FireDebbie formed in response to Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s defense of the superdelegate system. Joshua Malina, of West Wing and Scandal fame, tweeted that the “superpower [of superdelegates] is the ability to ignore the electorate.”
So, why do people care? As Paste Magazine pointed out, superdelegates don’t decide primaries. The whole point of superdelegates is that they aren’t pledged. If a candidate emerges as victorious through pledged delegate counts, the superdelegates could flip support to be on the winning side before the convention. Regardless of superdelegate endorsement, the winner of the primary has always been the winner of the popular vote.
There are two possible reasons superdelegates are once again so talked about. First, the media is dominated by horse-race journalism. Who is winning in the poll or delegate count today makes national news and then is forgotten when the next poll comes out. While it is hard to believe that Clinton’s current monopoly on superdelegates will matter in the long run, it does make a difference in today’s headlines and is therefore at the forefront of the electorate’s mind.
More likely, outrage over superdelegates stems from outrage against establishment politicians. Though more prevalent among the Trump/Carson supporters on the right, the anti-Washington mentality pervades the primary on the left as well. To those who #feelthebern, Senator Sanders represents a new type of politics, straying from Clinton who represents the Washington elite.
Pledged or unpledged, the difference between superdelegates and delegates is more than just the protocol they go through; it is also who they are. Chair Wasserman-Schultz said it herself: “We separate [pledged and unpledged delegates] so that we don’t have elected officials and party leaders running against activists.” In an election where being a political “insider” is a detriment to a campaign, voters are wary of anything to do with the political elite, especially superdelegates.