The Democratic Party Nomination Process Explained
Of primaries and presidential nominees
1. The end of winner-takes-all primaries
The 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago was extremely contentious. George McGovern narrowly lost the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, who in turn, narrowly lost the general election to Richard Nixon.
As a direct result, McGovern led a commission to change the Democratic National Party’s approach to allocating delegates elected in state contests. The Party adopted the McGovern commission recommendations, abandoned a winner takes all approach to the state contests, and permitted states to allocate delegates according to a variety of formulas, each chosen by state parties themselves.
The McGovern commission claimed the change would ensure greater representation of diverse voices in the nomination process. A more cynical take: by implementing this change, McGovern helped to ensure his nomination as the party’s nominee in 1972.
With McGovern as the 1972 nominee, the Democratic Party suffered a catastrophe. Richard Nixon won all but one state, Massachusetts. Nixon even won McGovern's home state, South Dakota. Nixon's 60.7% of the popular vote was the highest percentage ever won by a Republican candidate. Nixon won 521 electoral votes versus McGovern's 17.
2. The introduction of “superdelegates”
Whatever the intentions of the McGovern commission, the result was to create a process that made it more likely that the Democrat’s presidential nominee would be to the left of the party’s base and that meant being far to the left of most American voters.
Rather than return to the pre-Govern commission winner-takes-all approach, however, the party decided to introduce a different kind of check on its process. Balancing the legitimate concern of maintaining diversity of voice in state contests, the party introduced superdelegates, who were meant to block self-defeating nominees (e.g. McGovern, who simply never had a chance against Nixon). Note: this sort of check and balance system to produce good representation is what is used in the U.S. Constitution and individual state constitutions.
3. Who the “superdelegates” are
Superdelegates are not elites or backroom bigshots. While they include elected officials, some who hold high state office, they also include a large number of rank-and-file Democrats who work on behalf of the Party to make sure that its infrastructure and daily operations remain in place between presidential election years.
This pool – elected officials and dedicated Party members – was thought to be able to add a pragmatic and somewhat broader or longer-term perspective to the nominating process. In short, the point of having superdelegates is to make sure that the party does not run nominees who are highly unlikely to win in the general election, or put slightly differently, to consider a candidate’s appeal to the broader voting population that participates in the general election.
[note from Heidi Li: I wrote this post originally for www.taylormarsh.com; Taylor Marsh graciously encouraged me to post it over here on my "mini-blog"]