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What are “superdelegates,” and what do they mean for the Democratic nomination?

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at a Democratic debate in October 2015.
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at a Democratic debate in October 2015.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by a massive 22-point margin in New Hampshire on Tuesday night. But because of the Democratic Party’s system of "superdelegates" — more on that in a second — Clinton and Sanders could essentially get the same number of votes from the Granite State toward their nomination.

How could that be? As you may remember from the 2008 contest between Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic primary is decided by a vote of delegates at the party’s national convention.

The majority of those delegates, as you’d expect, have to vote in accordance with the actual results of the contests in their respective states. But there’s another category of delegates — the so-called "superdelegates," mostly made up of Democratic Party insiders — who get to support whomever they want, with no obligation to voters’ preferences.

In New Hampshire, Sanders won the delegates chosen by voters by a 15-to-9 margin. But NBC News reports that Clinton will get at least six of the state’s eight superdelegates — pushing her total from New Hampshire up to at least 15.

The other two superdelegates remain uncommitted. So Clinton could theoretically get more delegates from a state that she lost by a wide margin.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Voting in Iowa on February 1. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

What is a superdelegate, anyway?

As Elaine Kamarck writes in her book Primary Politics, the creation of superdelegates was a reaction to the messy 1980 Democratic convention, in which Ted Kennedy and his supporters challenged sitting President Jimmy Carter. Many Democrats felt that the democratization of the primary process had led to chaos, and resulted in many nominees that ended up losing. Therefore, they wanted to give party elites more of a say.

"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," Jim Hunt, who headed the commission that considered reforming the party's rules, said at the time, according to Kamarck's book. "We would then return a measure of decision-making power and discretion to the organized party."

Perhaps, as Hunt's quote suggests, the Democratic officials themselves believed this was a responsible way to ensure that the party nominated the right candidate. But it's much harder to believe that that they didn't foresee the undemocratic implications of bolstering the "decision-making power" of party leaders.

The Democratic nomination will be determined by 4,763 total delegates — 4,051 chosen by the voters and 712 who fit the "super" category.

The 712 superdelegates are made up of two major groups. One is prominent elected Democrats, including all of the party's governors, the president and vice president, and all of its members in Congress.

The second group consists of all members of the Democratic National Committee. That includes elected representatives, like mayors and county executives, as well as presidents of various Democratic organizations like the National Federation of Democratic Women and the College Democrats of America, according to the DNC's bylaws.

At the end of the day, the superdelegates probably won’t matter. Probably.

It's true that, as a piece published by NPR suggested, the superdelegates could defy the popular will and ensure the nomination of a candidate who received fewer votes.

There's reason to doubt that would actually happen. At least 360 superdelegates have already pledged their support to Clinton, but there’s nothing binding them to her candidacy. If Sanders clearly wins a majority of delegates from primaries and caucuses, it’s hard to imagine Democratic Party superdelegates would override the will of the voters and hand Clinton the nomination anyway, even though they theoretically could.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that many of the superdelegates are themselves politicians who have to win elections. In a contest won decisively by Sanders, they’re going to have a strong incentive to do what the voters want.

The other reason is that the superdelegates are the Democratic Party’s stalwarts, those most devoted to protecting its image. Rejecting a populist Sanders insurgency to anoint Clinton is not a good look for the party — either for a general election battle or its long-term reputation.

There's one catch, though — if the race is very close or essentially a tie, it's certainly possible that superdelegates could tip the balance to Clinton rather than Sanders. Democratic superdelegates have never overturned the outcome of the popular vote before — in close contests, they've sided with whoever was ahead in the regular delegate count.

But Sanders is a true outsider who has practically no support from the party and is believed by many to be unelectable. So the party's elites very well might decide to stop him if they think the margin is close enough that they can get away with it.

Why the superdelegate system is still really undemocratic (and should be abolished)

Regardless of what happens in this election, the fact that a party establishment even could overturn the voters strikes many as transparently unfair.

Sanders’s supporters were infuriated earlier this month by rumors that coin tosses decided the outcome of several key precincts in Iowa, handing Clinton the state. (That wasn't really the case, for reasons Vox's Dara Lind explains here.)

But if that narrative spurred fears about manipulation of the primary process, the superdelegates pose a much bigger potential problem.

A coin toss sounds farcical and absurd, but at least it's a tiebreaker triggered by genuinely close vote totals. Giving a group of Democratic loyalists and politicians a "super vote," on the other hand, really does just give elites more power than the average voter.