Most people envision presidential primaries as a democratic process, where members of each party vote to decide who will be their candidate in the general election, and everyone has an equal say. However, this is a far cry from how the system actually works, especially for the Democratic Party.
Those who watched the Democratic Iowa Caucus in the beginning of February may remember it was a tight race. The Iowa Caucus is the first state primary for both parties, making it a good test of a candidate’s viability moving forward to other states. That night, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both received between 45-50 percent of the vote and earned 23 and 21 delegates respectively. From these results, it looked as if the race would be quite close moving forward.
However, according to a Bustle article from Jan. 31, Clinton was already shown leading Sanders nationally by more than 300 delegates before the Iowa polls even opened. The aptly named piece, "Hillary Clinton is already winning the Democratic race even before the Iowa Caucus begins," claims this was because Clinton had already secured 359 delegates nationally while Sanders only had eight, giving Clinton a huge lead without any votes being counted.
How could a candidate secure delegates without anyone having voted for them, especially when seemingly in a tight race? To answer this, one must consider how the Democratic primary functions.
The party’s nominee is usually determined by who has more delegates going into the Democratic convention after every state primary has ended. The number of delegates a candidate achieves is determined in two ways. First, pledged delegates are distributed based on who won in individual state primaries. For instance, West Virginia has 29 pledged delegates which will be awarded proportionally to how candidates perform in its primary. Thus, if a candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, they get half of the delegates.
This is how most imagine the nominees get picked, and it is true that roughly 85 percent of all delegates are decided in this way. However, a recent report from the Guardian titled "Who are the Democratic superdelegates and where did they come from?" explains that more than 700 delegates are not tied to state primaries. These individuals, called "superdelegates," are mostly party officials and politicians from the present or past and can assign themselves to any candidate they wish regardless of how individuals vote in primary elections.
According to the article, this was put in place in the early 1980s because the previous, more democratic system "totally cut elected officials and party elders out of the process." However, this is simply what democracy requires. In allowing current elected officials and senior members of the party to have a larger vote than everyone else, the primary system is giving increased power to establishment figures instead of empowering grassroots movements. That is, it is rejecting democratic values.
This can have a huge effect in elections, as we are currently seeing. According to Associated Press estimates, Clinton has roughly a 750 delegate lead over Sanders, making her seem to have major support across the
However, digging into the numbers, she is only winning by 277 pledged delegates, meaning most of her lead comes from superdelegates. This actually suggests that she and Sanders are much closer in grassroots support, though she has more support from the "elected officials and party elders" mentioned above.
Of course, without superdelegates Clinton would still be beating Sanders in the primary, though the race would be much closer. These considerations suggest superdelegates have a fairly large effect on primary elections in a very undemocratic way. Therefore, if the Democrats truly want to be democratic, they must reexamine this system of choosing nominees.