About 4,800 people determine the Democratic nominee for president. But most of them, called pledged delegates, are bound by primary election results — and that's why we know 55 percent of them will vote for Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, where the nominee is chosen.
Then there are superdelegates.
It's a group of 719 party leaders who can vote for whomever they want, and change their minds whenever they want.
But Clinton has such a large lead over Bernie Sanders in pledged delegates that, even if hundreds of superdelegates change their minds, Clinton would still win the nomination. So in this sense, superdelegates didn't make much of a difference in this election.
But superdelegates can influence the election in other ways, most notably through sharing their preference in the media. Occasionally, media organizations like the Associated Press call all 719 superdelegates to see who they prefer. And that's how we know the large majority of them supported Clinton over Bernie Sanders, even before a single vote was cast.
The primary process is long and arduous, with twists and turns that can change the tide of an election. But having the first say, if even through the media, gives superdelegates the ability to set expectations for candidates. If we think winning the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primaries are important, so is winning the public support of superdelegates early on.
For Sanders supporters, that is a legitimate complaint.
The other legitimate complaint is that the average superdelegates is about 60 years old, according a Pew Research Center analysis. Exit polls consistently showed younger voters supporting Sanders by huge margins, while older voters preferred Clinton. So the older demographics of superdelegates may have favored Clinton. That said, it's not a surprise that the average age of superdelegates is about 60, since older party leaders are more likely to be established statesmen who earn a spot on the Democratic National Committee.
So who are these 719 people who have outsized power in this process? I initially posted a list a few months ago, which was accurate as of January 21, 2016. The list below, which I also got from the Democratic National Committee, is accurate as of May 27, 2016. About 20 names have been removed, and another 20 added. Here's the list:
How is someone a superdelegate?
There are basically three ways one can become a superdelegate, according to the DNC Charter.
- The first is through holding political office. All Democratic governors, senators, and House representatives automatically get a spot as a superdelegate. This is why Bernie Sanders will have a spot as a Vermont superdelegate. Superdelegate Bernie Sanders will presumably pledge to support presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — just like President Barack Obama pledged his own superdelegate support to himself in 2008.
- The second is through being a DNC member. There are 20 ways in which you can be a member of the DNC, most of which involve being a high-ranking member of a DNC leadership group. (Details in Article 3, Section 2 of the DNC charter.)
- The third is being an especially distinguished member of the party. This is a small group, only about 20 people or so. If you're a current or former president, vice president, Senate leader, House leader, or DNC chair, then you're a superdelegate. This is why Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Al Gore, Walter Mondale, Howard Dean, and George Mitchell are superdelegates.
When do superdelegates decide whom they support?
They don't have to decide until the convention. Right now, most of them have publicly said they support Hillary Clinton. But they can change their minds at any time.
Can they override the will of the people?
It appears Clinton will win the majority of pledged delegates, but if all the superdelegates vote for Sanders at the convention, he would clinch the nomination. While this is mathematically possible, this is not going to happen.
As my colleague Jeff Stein points out, superdelegates are politicians, and going against the will of the people jeopardizes their chances at reelection.
In addition, about 90 percent of superdelegates have said they support Clinton.
Who is going to be the nominee?
Barring something very unexpected, it will be Hillary Clinton.