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Are Democrats Courting Chaos In 2020 By Limiting The Power Of Superdelegates?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): We’re here to talk about superdelegates!!!!!!

Everyone’s favorite subject, right?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Extremely 2016 up in here.

micah: (This is my least favorite topic.)

clare.malone: I can’t imagine why. It’s so sexy, and the debate is totally based in facts about what happened during 2016.

micah: 👏

OK, so Democrats over the weekend curtailed the power of superdelegates a bit by changing the party’s nominating rules.

Here, from friend-of-the-site Josh Putnam at Frontloading HQ, is a description of the new system:

1. If a candidate wins 50 percent of the pledged delegates plus one during or by the end of primary season, then the superdelegates are barred from the first ballot.
2. If a candidate wins 50 percent of all of the delegates (including superdelegates) plus one, then the superdelegate opt-in is triggered and that faction of delegates can participate in the first (and only) round of voting.
3. If no candidate wins a majority of either pledged or all delegates during or by the end of primary season, then superdelegates are barred from the first round and allowed in to vote in the second round to break the stalemate.

Can someone give us a topline “what this means”?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): It means that superdelegates can’t override the voters if someone gets 50 percent + 1 of pledged delegates.

It also means they could be hugely influential in the case of a multiballot convention, which is probably the more important case.

And it probably makes a multiballot convention more likely by not allowing superdelegates to be used as tiebreakers.

clare.malone: I think what they’re trying to do is mitigate the notion during the primary contest that “elites” have outsized weight.

We should note here that Hillary Clinton won more pledged delegates in 2016 than Bernie Sanders.

micah: Yeah, how much of this is PR vs. actually limiting the influence of superdelegates?

natesilver: Like so many other institutions, they’re catering to their critics and fighting the last war.

Like, I’m not even sure how I feel about superdelegates. I just think this is done for maybe the wrong reasons? And that the more interesting lessons were actually in the GOP primary in 2016?

clare.malone: I don’t know — it seems like a fair reaction in many ways.

I don’t think it’s bad to mitigate concerns that people in your base might have about stifling voter representation.

natesilver: Let’s say the pledged delegate allocation after everyone has voted is: Elizabeth Warren 40 percent, Joe Biden 30 percent, Cory Booker 20 percent, and 10 percent scattered among various other candidates who have since dropped out. Under the previous system, superdelegates would weigh in for Warren — who clearly is the most popular choice — and give her a majority on the first ballot.

Under the new system, the superdelegates don’t get to vote on the first ballot. Instead, they wait until the second ballot, when most of the pledged delegates become unpledged.

And there could be a lot more chaos here: Maybe Booker agrees to run as Biden’s VP, for instance.

clare.malone: Devil’s advocate: Why is it chaos? And even if it is chaos, why is it bad?

Are you arguing that it actually leads to back-room deals negating its supposed goal of democratizing the process?

natesilver: I’m saying that requiring an outright majority on the first ballot — no superdelegates to push a candidate who’s close to a majority over the top — coupled with Democrats’ extremely proportional delegate allocations — is a recipe for chaos

The chances of the nomination not being resolved on the first ballot are about 50 percent, maybe a little higher.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I agree with that. I actually think under the previous system, Warren (or Sanders) was guaranteed to win in a scenario where she (or he) had the most delegates. That is less true now. The previous system gave superdelegates lots of power in theory. But in practice, supers were already bending to the will of the voters. Some superdelegates who originally backed Hillary Clinton flipped to Barack Obama in the latter stages of the 2008 Democratic primary, for example, once it became clear that he would win the most pledged delegates. That ensured that he got the majority of all delegates at the end.

clare.malone: I’ve decided to argue from the angle of the rules-changers. Aren’t you guys infantilizing the voters a bit? Yes, the process might be messier than in previous years, but on a second-round ballot where people are unpledged, you basically get to see a bit of a caucus happen among delegates. Maybe that sort of parliamentary way of doing things is healthy for the party.

Maybe what voters want is to see the process thrashed out, to see a second ballot!

micah: Woo!

natesilver: Maybe! But it goes against the stated aims of the reforms.

perry: And the changes don’t seem like a great advantage for the Sanders people, who pushed for them.

clare.malone: Well, the party is very different than it was in 2016.

So maybe the “center” or the “establishment” candidate will be closer to where Sanders is and it won’t matter … and the voters will be there too.

natesilver: I agree that it’s hard to predict who these changes will benefit. And, of course, there’s a long history of changes that were made with the best of intentions backfiring.

Democrats saw the train wreck that was the Republican nomination process in 2016 and decided to do nothing to prevent something similar happening to them, even though it looks like they could easily also have a 17-candidate field or thereabouts in 2020.

micah: So, using Nate’s hypothetical above — “Warren 40 percent, Biden 30 percent, Booker 20 percent, and 10 percent scattered among various other candidates” — doesn’t this come down to whether you think Warren winning a plurality means she should get the nomination or whether you think Warren not winning a majority means she shouldn’t get the nomination?

natesilver: I think Warren’s probably getting the nomination either way IN THOSE SCENARIOS , but she’s definitely at more risk under the new system.

clare.malone: Maybe it’s a healthier process for a party that has actual divisions.

natesilver: Now, maybe there are some cases where the opposite is true. If you have a case where it’s Kamala Harris 51 percent, Joe Biden 48 percent, Martin O’Malley 1 percent of the pledged delegates — Harris is now guaranteed the nomination, whereas supers could have pushed it to Biden before.

But if it’s Harris 49 percent, Biden 46 percent, O’Malley 5 percent, she’s not.

clare.malone: It’s basically just more of a wild-card system.

(As a side note, as a journalist, I look forward to the potential drama.)

natesilver: What saved the Republicans from a contested convention of their own in 2016 was the fact that a lot of their primaries, especially toward the end stages, were winner-take-all or winner-take-most. That allowed Donald Trump to build up some real momentum in the last one-third or so of the primary calendar.

Without that, the GOP would probably have still gotten Trump anyway — he was clearly the choice of the plurality of voters — but only after an extremely chaotic convention.

perry: I don’t think the big goal (stopping supers from overturning the plurality of the pledged delegates) is necessarily best served by these particular reforms. That said, on the broader question of whether superdelegates SHOULD be able overturn the plurality of pledged delegates, I think there is a case for superdelegates to have that power. I’m not completely sure superdelegates should be disempowered, even though I agree with arguments that the will of the people should be respected and am generally for giving voters more power. The last two years (so Trump) have suggested that maybe party elders should play a bigger role, not necessarily in pushing for a different person ideologically, but maybe a president who abides by general norms. (For example, I think Ted Cruz would be as conservative as Trump, but perhaps less erratic and able to condemn white nationalist rallies.) I’m not sure if, say, Michael Avenatti has a chance of winning the Democratic nomination in 2020, but I bet a lot of Democratic Party elders are not excited at that prospect–and would like to have the power to stop it.

In other words, maybe the elites should have more power?

micah: I’m a secret believer in that.

clare.malone: Why? To prevent chaos?

micah: Because the mob can be dangerous.

clare.malone: Why are you guys harping on that?

I think there’s something to be said about a cathartic political process.

Voters have watched their nominations be manufactured behind the scenes. What’s wrong with radical transparency?

Yes, it might bring a couple of rounds of voting, I concede that. But you haven’t convinced me why that’s bad in the end? As long as there’s civility among the actors, which I think you could engineer, it’s not a terrible scenario.

natesilver: The expectation among voters is that the most popular nominee will get the nomination.

Granted, there are different ways of defining “most popular.”

clare.malone: Which would likely be reflected in the contested convention votes. Right?

Norms have been less broken on the Democratic side of things, so I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation.

natesilver: Maybe? But the more ballots you go, the more divorced you become from the delegates’ original preferences.

We knew on the GOP side, for example, that many delegates personally didn’t back Trump and were big risks to turn on him in the event of multiple ballots even though they were bound to him on the first ballot.

A better-organized campaign will exert more control over the delegate selection process and be better at whipping delegates.

perry: I guess I view these rules as being a diss to the superdelegates. The supers themselves read them that way too.

clare.malone: That’s the point, though. They’re meant to diss. It’s the mood of the party’s hoi polloi.

perry: If Sanders or another candidate who is anti-superdelegates does not win a majority of pledged delegates during the primary, he should be worried. I wonder if the supers, on the second ballot, are even more unbound under this new system, compared to the old one. They could say, “You [Sanders’ supporters] said you wanted a system in which a majority of pledged delegates means you win. You didn’t get a majority. We get to intervene now. These are your rules. We are following them and we will now choose who WE want.”

micah: OK, let’s try it this way: Would these rules, had they been in place, have altered any past Democratic nominations?

Would Clinton have had a better chance in 2008?

perry: This is where I would like to do a more careful analysis.

But, yes, my instinct is that Clinton would have had a better chance to win on a second ballot in this new system. The superdelegates would have no role in the first ballot, but I think their role is enhanced in a second one.

natesilver: There are some primaries, such as in 1984 and 2008, where the nomination process would have been messier, although maybe it would have produced the same nominee.

clare.malone: I smell an assignment …

And then some fan fic about the alternate political universes.

natesilver: Yeah. My thing is that you want a system where someone can win on the first ballot with less than a majority, but with a reasonably clear plurality. Because it’s very common for the top candidate to have something like 35 percent to 45 percent of the overall votes in the primary.

There are two ways to achieve that: either through superdelegates or through winner-take-all/winner-take-most rules.

The Democrats have neither one of those now.

clare.malone: Maybe this is finally a concession to the big tent party that they have. And in the ensuing rounds of ballot negotiation, maybe you have compromises on who gets VP — like, a Warren paired with a more centrist person — we’ll see who comes along over the next couple of years.

micah: IDK, maybe I agree with Clare: Democracy is messy, so maybe it should look messy.

perry: I think those changes might be good (the ones Clare laid out). The idea that the convention picks the vp. But they give the elites more power.

Sanders does not want the party to pick his vp.

clare.malone: Well, that’s the concession he has to pay to be more of a player.

People have sold their souls for much less. A compromise VP when you’re the presidential nominee of a party in semi-shock therapy ain’t bad.

natesilver: One simple reform they could have considered is to give the nomination to whomever wins the plurality of delegates. Except in a few weird states, that’s how our electoral system works: Plurality takes all.

micah: Or: National popular vote. Simple. One day of voting. Highest vote-getter takes all.

perry: Can we jump back to the broader context?

The reason I am open to elites having more power is because Trump is different in terms of democratic norms, etc. I think Sanders would be better than Avenatti in terms of following those norms.

And the voters might blow it.

If we have weak parties and strong partisanship, do we want to weaken the parties further?

I’m not usually an elitist, but are we sure the voters are doing a great job?

clare.malone: This feels like the old argument against direct election of U.S. senators.

It basically comes down to the age-old question: Do we trust the vox populi?

micah: No.

clare.malone: Haha, so now you’ve switched teams!

micah: lol

Just kidding.

Do you?

How much “republic” do you want in your democratic republic?

clare.malone: I’m still arguing team small-d democracy.

natesilver: There’s also the question of whether ranked-choice voting would produce a different result. Like, suppose that Avenatti was the plurality front-runner with 20 percent of the vote. But most of the other 80 percent who didn’t vote for him didn’t like him.

clare.malone: I think you’ve got to have some faith in the voters.

perry: I want to.

natesilver: Although the GOP doesn’t have superdelegates per se, the fact that the party made relatively feeble efforts to stop Trump is also relevant here. It suggests the norm toward letting voters decide is quite strong.

And the stronger that norm is, the less dangerous that superdelegates are.

micah: I think Perry said this earlier, but I do think there’s a chance this empowers supers because it will erode that norm on the second ballot.

perry: Yeah, that is what I was hinting at — particularly if it’s something like Sanders 44 percent and Harris or Booker or Julian Castro (a non-white candidate) at 41.


clare.malone: I mean, he’s got his Vogue story in place.

Next comes the chummy Ellen interview.

perry: FiveThirtyEight contributor Seth Masket wrote that there was a big racial divide at the DNC meeting where this change was adopted, namely that some prominent black officials are opposed to the changes.

The Congressional Black Caucus, for example, likes the power of superdelegates in the current system. (Members of Congress are superdelegates, of course.)

clare.malone: Donna Brazile was making the argument that the DNC was trying to disenfranchise them.

micah: Why do you think there’s a racial divide?

perry: Because there is a big racial divide among party elites about Sanders.

Sanders did well among young black voters. But I suspect that he has very little support among black superdelegates.

natesilver: And there’s also the question of: What if in a close race, you had one Democrat with a plurality of votes/delegates but very little support among black or Hispanic Democrats.

You could argue that’s a case where supers should intervene. I’m not sure I like that argument, but you could make it.

Although, again, in any type of plurality scenario, the supers get to intervene anyway.

micah: How about this for a compromise: Have superdelegates but only let elected officials be them.

natesilver: Many/most of them are elected officials anyway?

clare.malone: Yeah.

micah: Not all, though.

perry: Most superdelegates are DNC members, according to the Pew Research Center, not members of Congress. But some of those DNC members might be elected officials at the local level.

micah: BAM!

clare.malone: I love that one of the subcategories of superdelegates is “distinguished party leaders.” Lol.

natesilver: How about: Let the nowcast decide in the event that no one gets the plurality?

perry: Nate Silver picks which candidate is most electable.

natesilver: Hahaha


perry: If we pitched this idea to Democratic voters, that Nate picks the candidate or the DNC picks, they would probably go with Nate. I’m serious. I don’t think most Democrats trust the party that much.

natesilver: But see the most electable candidate would be the one with the most popular support.

clare.malone: O’Malley’s gonna make a comeback in that case.

micah: If all the supers were elected officials, it would still have a tinge of small-d democracy. It’s a good middle ground!

perry: That seems right to me. They would be accountable.

That’s the problem with the DNC — people don’t necessarily know who those people are.

natesilver: How about if there’s no majority through the delegate system, there’s a national 50-state referendum where everyone votes again?

That would obviously be cost/logistically prohibitive.

In some very real ways, though, polls could become very important under that scenario. For example, it was probably important in 2008 that Obama never fell behind Clinton in national polls, or at least not for sustained periods, when going through all the Jeremiah Wright stuff, etc.

perry: I’m going to play the Micah role here, because I was curious what Nate’s and Clare’s thoughts were about the caucus changes.

micah: Yeah, let’s close on that. Can someone give me a summary of the caucus changes please?

natesilver: My understanding is that caucuses now need to include a means for people to participate off-site — e.g., through absentee ballots.

perry: Right.

clare.malone: I think it’s probably a shift toward the right kind of “small d democracy” change I’ve been talking about. There are lots of good arguments that say caucuses mean that a lot of people who do shift work can’t vote.

natesilver: Caucuses tend to favor candidates whose supporters are (1) more enthusiastic and (2) better organized. I’m not sure that necessarily maps cleanly onto a left-right scale, and it can be fairly idiosyncratic from election to election who does better in caucuses.

clare.malone: Caucuses tend to favor insurgents, it’s fair to say.

natesilver: They didn’t in the GOP, though.

clare.malone: On the Democratic side they have, right?

natesilver: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (OK, Cruz is sort of an insurgent) did better in caucuses, and Trump struggled in them.

I think that’s mostly true.

In 1988, Jesse Jackson struggled in caucuses early on but then started to do quite well in them. It can be quirky.

Also, a lot of states have abandoned caucuses of their own volition and switched to primaries.

perry: So is this a big change?

natesilver: It’s not big in the sense that the Democrats didn’t have that many caucuses anyway, and they were mostly in small-population states.

However, there are often big differences between who does well in caucuses and who does well in primaries.

Without caucuses, Clinton might have won in 2008.

Without caucuses, Sanders wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long.

If the GOP had more caucuses, they might not have chosen Trump.

micah: To wrap, does anyone want to say whether all these changes help or hurt any specific potential 2020 candidates?

Or do we really just have no clue?

clare.malone: I think you have to wait and see what their support/activist system is like.

natesilver: Yeah, we’re at the stage where there are 15 billiard balls on the table and it’s hard to know what everything will look like after the break.

Again, my 🔥 take is just that it’s a bad idea to have neither superdelegates nor winner-take-all/most rules. Especially in a year without a clear front-runner.

micah: OK, to sum up, it seems like the best take is: These changes could have big unforeseen and unintended consequences — or maybe not. And to cap us off, I asked Julia (who has studied this a lot) to give us her take …

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m more ambivalent about the superdelegate change than a lot of political scientists, many of whom are generally opposed to them. This is mainly because I think parties need to think about how they can regain legitimacy, and if supers are left out of the first ballot but can legitimately come in in the case of a deadlocked convention, that’s a good thing.

Acknowledging the possibility that the nomination might not be wrapped up by the convention and that that could be something other than a total crisis is in my view a good thing. The emphasis on party elites unifying around a single candidate early in the nomination — in either party — hampers competition within the party and potentially prevents voters from having real power in the nomination process.. At the same time, my understanding is that none of the rules change anything about how elected officials can make their preferences known during and before the primary season (so people who are superdelegates can still endorse someone ,even if that endorsement is not effectively a delegate vote in this new process), and that will rightly be seen by some in (for lack of a better term) the Bernie camp as attempting to tip the scales in favor of more establishment candidates. If you could actually have a competitive convention without it being seen as a giant disaster, then elites wouldn’t need to head that off by endorsing early.

FiveThirtyEight House forecast update for August 29, 2018

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.