May 5, 2016

Who are the Democratic superdelegates?

FT_16.05.03_superDelegates_byCategoryThis year’s Democratic presidential primary contest has been surprisingly competitive, and it’s not over yet. As the race enters its final weeks, Bernie Sanders and his supporters are stepping up their efforts to pry loose some of the “superdelegates” who are backing rival Hillary Clinton. Which made us wonder: Just who are these 700-plus party officeholders and insiders who automatically get delegate spots at July’s convention and can vote for whomever they want?

In short, they’re the embodiment of the institutional Democratic Party – everyone from former presidents, congressional leaders and big-money fundraisers to mayors, labor leaders and longtime local party functionaries. Nearly six-in-ten are men, close to two-thirds are white, and their average age (as best we could tell) is around 60.

Superdelegates (not an official designation, by the way; their formal name is “unpledged party leaders and elected officials”) will account for just under 15% of all delegate votes at July’s Democratic National Convention. We worked from a list made public by the national Democratic Party (originally to Vox), and updated and corrected it to account for deaths, resignations and, in at least one case, criminal conviction. We came up with a total of 713 named superdelegates (a handful of slots are still vacant), then used a mix of official biographies, news reports, social-media postings and other sources to determine each superdelegate’s gender, race/ethnicity and, in most cases, age.

A portrait of the Democratic Party's superdelegates

Not just anyone gets to be a superdelegate. Under party rules, all sitting Democratic governors (21, including the mayor of Washington, D.C.), senators (47) and representatives (193) automatically get their convention tickets punched. So do 20 “distinguished party leaders” – current and former presidents and vice presidents, retired House and Senate Democratic leaders, and all past chairs of the Democratic National Committee, the party’s governing body.

But most superdelegates gain that status because they’re DNC officers or members. That includes the chairs and vice chairs of each state and territorial Democratic Party; 212 national committeemen and committeewomen elected to represent their states; top officials of the DNC itself and several of its auxiliary groups (such as the Democratic Attorneys General Association, the National Federation of Democratic Women and the Young Democrats of America); and 75 at-large members who are nominated by the party chairman and chosen by the full DNC. (Most of those at-large members are local party leaders, officeholders and donors or representatives of important Democratic constituencies, such as organized labor.)

Overall, the superdelegates skew male (58%) and non-Hispanic white (62%). Blacks account for about a fifth of the superdelegates, and Hispanics about 11%. (We could not determine the race and ethnicity of 13 superdelegates.)

The party’s official policy of encouraging gender equity and racial/ethnic diversity is most reflected among the superdelegates coming from the DNC itself: The male-female split is nearly equal (220-212), and non-Hispanic whites make up less than 60% of the total. The House members are similarly diverse on racial and ethnic lines, but two-thirds are men. Two-thirds of the senators and governors are white men, as are all but two of the distinguished party leaders.

Part of the “super” in superdelegates is that they’re not bound to support any particular candidate, and are free to shift their allegiance – or refrain from committing to anyone – right up to the convention’s roll-call vote on the nomination. While many Sanders supporters say the entire superdelegate system is undemocratic, the Sanders campaign wants to turn their flexibility in his favor, arguing that Sanders’ recent primary victories (most recently in Indiana) are reasons superdelegates should back the senator rather than Clinton.

But based on their public endorsements to date, that looks to be a heavy lift. According to our count, 500 superdelegates are backing Clinton against just 42 for Sanders; that translates into 498 and 41 convention votes, respectively, because the superdelegates representing overseas Democrats have a half-vote each. (Fair warning: Any such counts are inherently imprecise – the Associated Press, for instance, has similar but slightly different numbers.) More than 85% of Democratic governors, senators and representatives are supporting Clinton, as are 61% of superdelegates from the DNC.

Thirty-two of Sanders’ superdelegate supporters, or 76%, are white, versus 62% of Clinton’s superdelegates. About 41% of her superdelegates are women, versus 26% of Sanders’.

Although we could find age information for only 547 superdelegates, what we do have suggests that Sanders’ superdelegates are a bit younger, on average, than Clinton’s: The average age of superdelegates backing Sanders was 58.9, versus 60.8 for Clinton’s supporters; their median ages were 60.8 and 61.9, respectively.

Topics: U.S. Political Parties, Election News

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    All of this convinces me more than ever that the ou-of-control political parties have literally taken over our government. All this could be avoided if we were to discount the party primaries completely and simple have a national primary with the “Top Two” vote getters going to the general election, regardless of their party afilliations. This would return power to the voters, where it belongs.

  2. Anonymous1 year ago

    I am curious. How does the super delegates rules of the DNC supercede Article II Section 1 of the Constitution? EgEach state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      Because this is a primary, not a general election. As parties, neither Democrats nor Republicans are required by law to hold a voting process for their candidates, but they do it to appeal to their constituents. What the Constitution is referring to is the general election. Parties, although related, are not the government, but are just of group of like-minded individuals that attempt to gain administrative control of the government. I could form a new party tomorrow and I could nominate whoever I like for my candidate, although in this political climate I doubt my party would even register on voter’s conscious.

  3. Anonymous1 year ago

    I support Hillary Clinton. I believed superdelegates were a necessary fixture in the nominating process when Hillary lost in 2008 and I still believe they’re necessary when she’s winning in 2016. Thomas Payne wrote about “factions”. The electoral college in the general election and superdelegates in the Democratic Party’s nominating contest offer protections against these.

    The untempered will of the people can often be a dangerous thing. Look at the Republicans and how much they all wish they had superdelegates in their process. Obama, with some effort and as a very grassroots candidate, overcame the superdelegate hurdle even if just barely.

  4. Anonymous1 year ago

    Dozens of these super delegates are paid lobbyists for Monsanto, wall street, big pharma, private prisons, health insurers, the oil industry, etc. Super delegates were invented in 1982 as a means to prevent grassroots nominees. The question is why would the Dem party not want such a candidate? Who does the DNC serve if not the party members who’d want such an outsider -such as Sanders? The DNC superdelegate lobbyist list speaks volumes about a sold out party -and candidate.

  5. Anonymous1 year ago

    Do the former presidents have to be members of the Democratic Party? If George W. Bush, for example, wanted to attend the Democratic Convention as a voting delegate, could he? Not that he’d want to, but could he?

  6. Anonymous1 year ago

    You failed to mention that many of the super delegates are now working as lobbyists. Many of these lobbyists earned their place as a super delegate because of their role of representing the people, but now have taken on the role of representing the special interests and oppose the will of the people they once represented. Howard Dean earned his spot because he once was the governor of Vemont but has committed his vote to HRC which is against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of Vermont voters, but in line with the preferences of the special interests he now lobbys for. The SD system is another way that big money can influence our political system. It is corrupt. The DNC under DWS is also corrupt and owned by its wealthy donors. We need to not only overturn Citizen’s United to clean up politics in general, but also do away with the corrupt SD system and clean up the DNC and make the Democratic Party democratic once again. We should also require that candidates be more transparent. Once they declare candidacy all speeches they have given in the past should be part of the public record and immediately accessible under the Freedom Of Information Act. Candidates should be held responsible for what they say behind locked doors to special interest groups. The public has a right to know so that they can vote intelligently.

    1. Renz Zen1 year ago

      thank you for this Anonymous!

  7. Keith Brown1 year ago

    And while we listened to the GOP front runner hyperventilate “the system is rigged,” in the Dem party it actually is. A lesson learned from the McGovern fiasco in 1972. After McGovern lost 49 of 50 states, the Dems agreed another primary would never occur in which an “outsider” would be allowed to disrupt the party’s “natural order.” Obama’s 2008 campaign was able to end up abiding by the SD rule because he won so many primaries and was supported by the Dem elites.

    1. Renz Zen1 year ago


  8. Anonymous1 year ago

    No wonder this party is so screwed up! It is obviously set up so the party power block can control any election regardless of the choice of the people.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      Your right”’

  9. Anonymous1 year ago

    You go on about the ethnic and gender divide of the superdelegates. I think it’s much more telling that a large portion of them are elected officials who operate within the Democratic party. From that point of view it’s practically obvious that most of them would not only not support Sanders but would be personally hostile to him, particularly when he’s been obvious in showing he doesn’t support the Democratic party in general.

  10. John Nemesh1 year ago

    You neglected to mention that 67 of Hillary’s superdelegates are registered LOBBYISTS!

    1. Karen J1 year ago

      You DO know that representatives of environmental groups, battered women (and men), veterans, animal rescue groups, minimum wage activists, preservation of the fine arts, etc. etc. who speak to congresspeople and other political leaders at every level are all lobbyists, don’t you? Does “lobbyist” mean to you some kind of sleazy bagman?

    2. Renz Zen1 year ago

      when it’s none of the above, and we’re pretty sure it’s none of the above. yes.

  11. Larry Reade1 year ago

    Supporting Clinton/supporting Sanders is all you need to look at in order to see how this will work itself out.