SuperdelegateUPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention by an old DNC hand, whose expertise I will gladly defer to, that my terminology in this article tends to be misleading. A Party Leader and Elected Official (PLEO) delegate also refers to a species of state-wide pledged delegate that only certain officials are qualified to become – but they are still pledged delegates, not "super-delegates". Actual "super-delegates" are unpledged delegates, who are drawn from a subset of party leaders and elected officials (the particular species of those critters that are unpledged, or "super," delegates are accurately listed below). Thus, there are unpledged PLEOs ("super-delegates") and pledged PLEOs (pledged delegates that must be a qualified office-holder, which is a way to reserve the political plum of attending and voting at the convention for the real players). Though I made the distinction that I meant unpledged PLEOs when I used the unqualified term ‘PLEO’, the fact that there are two species of PLEO could be misleading. I know that all this is slightly confusing, but merely add the word ‘unpledged’ to the acronym ‘PLEO’ wherever it occurs, and the article should be entirely accurate. I regret the confusion, and I put the blame squarely were it belongs – on every else but me and my helpful expert 🙂

It seems apparent that the Democratic nominee for President will be determined not by primary voters and caucus-goers, but by those mysterious super-delegates. What are they, how much influence do they have, and how should they decide for whom they should cast their votes?


Officially, the 795 super-delegates (about 20% of the total number of delegates) are ‘unpledged party leader and elected official delegates’, often referred to as PLEO delegates.

The Democratic PLEO delegates consist of:

  • Current members of the Democratic National Committee
  • Current Democratic members of the House of Representatives
  • Current Democratic members of the United States Senate
  • Current Democratic governors
  • Former Democratic presidents & vps
  • Former Democratic leaders of the United States Senate
  • Former Democratic Speakers of the House
  • Former Democratic House Minority Leaders
  • Former Chairs of the Democratic National Committee

Arizona’s PLEO delegates are:

  • DNC Members
    • Donald Bivens
    • Janice C. Brunson
    • Donna Branch Gilby
    • Joe Rios
    • Carolyn Warner
  • U.S. House of Representatives
    • Gabrielle Giffords
    • Raul Grijalva
    • Harry E. Mitchell
    • Ed Pastor
  • Governor Janet Napolitano

The PLEOs were created in 1982 in order to give the party more internal control of the nomination process following the reforms of the McGovern-Fraser Commission in 1968, under which rules McGovern was able to run his 1972 insurgent, anti-war, populist campaign that captured the nomination, but lost miserably to Nixon.

One of the concerns of the DNC in creating superdelegates was to prevent the nomination process from being captured from a narrow faction of party activists. There was concern about low turn-out in the primaries and especially the caucuses in the years between 1968 and 1980, often trending as low as 10-20% of eligible party members. That, combined with with the bad losses suffered in 1972 and 1980, and the under-representation at the Conventions of elected officials, led the party to pull back from a purely democratic approach to nominating.

There is a fundamental tension in the existence of PLEOs; they were created to perform a fundamentally undemocratic function – to moderate populist sentiment. Yet to have legitimacy, they have had to function merely as an extension of the primary system. Were they to change the outcome of the primary process by handing the nomination to the candidate who was behind in the pledged delegate count, most would view that as undemocratic and illegitimate. Yet they were created free of any constraint in how they voted at the convention precisely to bring to bear their superior experience and knowledge to the nomination process. They are supposed to do what they think is best for the party, but if the majority of them see the world differently than primary voters, there would be a great deal of dissatisfaction with their actions.

Many would have PLEOs constrained by their relevant constituency. For instance a Congressmember would be constrained to vote for the winner of the primary or caucus in their district, a DNC member by the outcome in their state, and so on. But not only does that remove all independence from the PLEO, it also doesn’t allow for the option of choosing the candidate who won the most pledged delegates nationally. Is it more legitimate to choose one criteria over another? If the PLEO can chose their own standards, they can effectively choose almost any candidate they like. So why not just accept their discretion to chose, as the party rules allow?

Ultimately, the freedom of the PLEO is not compatible with any reasonable theory of democratic legitimacy that could justify giving PLEOs a vote. Each pledged delegate represents thousands of voters, each PLEO ultimately only represents one, yet their votes are treated equally. That is deeply illegitimate. Of course, this elides the issue that there is no actual enforcement mechanism behind the pledge of any delegate, effectively putting each delegate on the honor system and making each a PLEO in his or her own right – but at least a pledged delegate is duty bound, and will suffer reputational harm for exploiting the independence a PLEO takes for granted.

How should PLEOs behave? And is there still a role for PLEOs in the nomination process now that the conditions that gave rise to the creation (most notably in this cycle, the absence of low turnouts) are no longer as relevant? If PLEOs merely echo and amplify the choice of the primary voters and caucus participants, why have them at all?

I don’t believe that PLEOs are constrained by ethics, and certainly not by party rules, to vote for the candidate who has the most pledged delegates going into the convention. They are intended to be independent and they are. But does that imply that it would be legitimate for them to overturn the popular will?

In probably the most relevant prior nomination process under the current rules, Gary Hart and Walter Mondale arrived at the 1984 convention neck and neck, but with neither having enough pledged delegates to capture the prize. Mondale was ahead in pledged delegates, just 40 shy of the nomination, and PLEOs put him over the top. The result was the amplification of result of the primary process. The PLEOs clenched the deal for Mondale, but he was already ahead.

But would it have been acceptable for the PLEOs to decide that Hart was a stronger candidate and better for he party and throw their support to him, thwarting the will of the electorate? Arguably, it wouldn’t have changed anything except a few trivia questions, but it certainly would have been defensible under the current rules and completely legal – there would be no redress or recourse available to Mondale, and the Democratic Party would have just had to accept Hart as the nominee. The only question in my mind is whether the PLEO system would have survived such an outcome.

Could the PLEOs decide the nomination this year? Absolutely.

Could they give it to the candidate who comes to the convention with less pledged delegates? Absolutely.

Would that be an acceptable outcome under the current nomination rules? Absolutely.

The obvious question raised is whether we need to change those rules. Should we continue to allow PLEOs the power that they have to overturn the popular will as expressed through proportionally allocated pledged delegates? I would argue that we should not.

The PLEOs don’t have a place in the nomination process if the Democratic Party aspires to be the democratically legitimate voice of the electorate. The roughly 800 PLEOs, through their position as elected leaders of the party do have a certain degree of democratic legitimacy in their own right, but not enough to overturn the expressed will of millions of Democrats participating in the nomination process. The PLEO system is a tool of rank paternalism and elitist mistrust of the electorate that wasn’t legitimate when adopted, and isn’t legitimate now.

If the PLEO system is used to overturn the will of the electorate at this convention, it would certainly be within the current rules and within the power currently granted to PLEOs, but it would almost certainly be a death-blow to the PLEO system itself. The only way that PLEOs will continue to exist is if they follow the example of the 1984 convention and merely bless the leader who is just short of the goal. And if all the PLEOs can do with any democratic legitimacy is to ratify and amplify the outcome of the primary process, what is its purpose?

One of the major reasons why the candidates can hit the convention without any of them having the needed majority is the PLEO system itself. Why have a system that contributes to the problem it is meant to solve? Why have a system containing the seeds of its own delegitimation – not to mention the ability to deeply discredit a Democratic Presidential ticket? We should hope that the PLEOs act wisely at this Convention, and then get rid of the system before it blows up in our faces.

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