In any election, there’s a ton of information to get a handle on. When can you vote? Can you vote early? Where can you vote? And oh yeah, who and what are you voting for?
On top of all that, the electoral process in the US can be just plain confusing—no matter how much attention you, ahem, paid in American Government class.
There’s the general election and before that, the nominating contests. For these contests, most states hold primaries. But some states have caucuses instead. What’s the difference between a caucus and primary, anyways? We’ve got you covered there already—as we do on how to pronounce that tricky word candidate.
Then there are delegates and superdelegates. Superdelegates: do they have some kind of voting superpower or something? And to complicate things even more, the Democratic and Republican parties have different rules for choosing their nominees.
Regardless of which candidate you support, we want to make sure you’re informed—on the complicated language of US elections. Let’s break down this delegate vs. superdelegate business.
What are delegates?
During a presidential election, the two major political parties, Democrats and Republicans, pick their candidate at their national conventions. The nominee is the candidate who wins the majority of their party’s delegates.
A delegate is “a person designated to act for or represent another or others,” especially a representative at a political convention—such as at the Democratic or Republican National Convention.
Members of a political party can apply to be delegates, and often include local politicians, early supporters of candidates, and other activists. Most delegates represent a congressional district. They pledge their support and campaign for a candidate and then work to get chosen to be a part of their state’s delegation.
During primaries and caucuses, presidential candidates campaign to get the votes from members of their party (and, in some primaries, independents). In the Democratic party, candidates who secure at least 15% of the overall vote cross the threshold for winning delegates, which are awarded proportionally. Some Republican delegates are awarded proportionally, while some states use a winner-take-all system during the primaries.
The Democratic party uses a fairly complex formula (if you ask us) to determine the allocation of delegates to candidates. The number of delegates each state gets is based on the state’s Democratic vote in the past three presidential elections and the number of votes that state has in the Electoral College.
What are superdelegates?
Now, onto superdelegates. They are also called unpledged or automatic delegates. Regular ol’ delegates are sometimes called pledged delegates, in distinction.
A superdelegate is “a party leader or elected public official chosen as an uncommitted delegate to a national political convention.” Want to show off your political chops? Use PLEO, taken from the initial letters of party leaders and elected officials.
Superdelegates are “uncommitted” because they can vote for whichever candidate they want regardless of the outcome of the primaries—a status designated by that prefix super-, meaning “above” or “beyond.” They include members of Congress and governors as well as former party leaders.
The term superdelegate dates back to the early 1980s. They have long caused friction in the Democratic party, as they can support a candidate even if the public did not (and thus many feel have undue power). They are at the center of the debate over the degree of influence primary voters have compared to party insiders in choosing the candidate.
Due to controversies over superdelegates, the Democratic party reformed its rules about superdelegates for the 2020 election. At the party convention, superdelegates cannot vote during the first ballot. They can only vote if an additional round of voting is needed—meaning, a candidate didn’t win a majority of delegates outright.
So, how does a candidate win?
Currently, there are 4,750 delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Of them, 3,979 are pledged delegates (and 771 unpledged). To win the nomination, a candidate needs to win a majority, which, based on party rules, comes to 1,991. If a candidate gets the vote of 1,991 or more delegates during the first ballot at the convention, they have won the nomination for the general election.
If they haven’t, the convention becomes what is known as contested. Additional rounds of voting are needed. Pledged delegates become unpledged and superdelegates come into play.
The Republican party has superdelegates, too, but they are limited to three per state and have to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in the nominating contests (primaries and caucuses).
Speaking of super …
Super Tuesday refers to the day, typically in March, when party members in many states vote in primary elections to select their party’s candidates. (Primaries can be scrapped or nominating processes changed when an incumbent president is running for reelection, as is the case for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.)
For the 2020 election, Super Tuesday is on March 3. Democratic voters in 14 states (plus caucuses in American Samoa and among registered Democrats who live abroad) will award a total of 1,357 delegates—the lion’s share of the 1,991 needed to win the nomination. That’s what makes Super Tuesday such an important day—and an important day to know your difference between a delegate and superdelegate.