The Origins of Super Delegates, or
How the Democratic Elite Enacted a Crooked System to Keep Their Kind on Top
The seeds of the current Democratic system of nomination were planted in the ashes of fires and riots of the 1968 convention and election. Entering the cycle, the Democrats were split into four camps. The old guard favorite and residing president, LBJ, was facing falling popularity and poor health, and in March of ’68 he withdrew from the race. His VP, Hubert H. Humphrey, Jr. of Minnesota, then entered the race representing the old-guard machine and boss wing of the Democratic party.
The other two candidates were Eugene McCarthy, running on an anti-war, pro-youth platform, and Robert Kennedy, who represented the pro-Civil Rights platform. The fourth faction were the old school Democrats, aka Dixiecrats.
In 1968, only 13 states held a primary, and HHH decided to focus on the states where the machine still decided the candidate, letting proxies run for him in the primary states. So the primary contest came down to McCarthy and Kennedy, but then Kennedy was shot in CA after winning the primary.
It became obvious as ’68 went on that the primaries were a farce and that the people’s voice meant nothing. The young folks, feeling disenfranchised and angry at the war in Vietnam, descended upon the Chicago convention and riots broke out. But the old guard won, soundly nominating HHH as the Democratic nominee for president.
So a fractured party limped towards November, and until LBJ pulled an October surprise by halting bombing in ‘Nam, HHH was polled at 10% below Nixon. Still that wasn’t enough for the Democrat Humphries, who while getting only .7% less of the popular vote than Nixon, lost the electoral vote by a score of 301 to 191.
The 1968 convention debacle had a residual effect on the Democratic party besides a loss to Nixon: at the 1972 convention, a committee was put together to make recommendations on how to broaden the participation and increase diversity in the nomination process. Senator George McGovern was put in charge of the committee and recommended that the selection process for delegates be put into the open. This led to a majority of states switching to the primary system.
McGovern also became the first nominee under the new system after Edward Muskie, the establishment favorite, became a target of Nixon’s “Dirty Tricks” campaign and was reported crying. Wallace (leader of the Dixiecrat branch of the Democrats) was also had a strong candidacy until he was shot by Aruthur Bremer and became paralyzed.
McGovern’s campaign against Nixon was marred by disaffection from the Democratic elite as well as two media incidents, both involving his running mate Thomas Eagleton. The disaffection from the Democratic bosses was so strong that some even threw their support behind Nixon.
The most famous event was the uncovering of skeletons in Eagleton’s closet, specifically electro-shock ones. At first McGovern joked about it saying that Eagleton would undergo a psyc-exam if the other candidates did too and said he was 1000% behind Eagleton. Then he asked Eagleton to resign.
The first event was when an unnamed Democratic senator was reported by Bob Novak as saying that McGovern was the party of “Amnesty, Abortion and Acid,” and saying that the Roman Catholics would revolt if they knew what McGovern was really about. Humorously enough, in 2007 Novak revealed that Eagleton was the Senator that said it.
McGovern lost in a landslide, with only MA and DC voting for McGovern. This monumental loss was seen as an indictment of the new primary system that also disempowered the elite, and by the 1980 election the DNC had instituted superdelegate reforms. From that point forward, active Democratic politicians and other individuals selected by the DNC would constitute over one fifth of the total vote in the Presidential nomination process.
[tags] superdelegates, democratic primary, nomination process, history of superdelegate system[/tags]
See also: Superdelegates, The Super-Delegates Begin To Balk, More on the Democrat’s SuperDilemma, Shake-ups and Super-delegates, Clinton campaign considering ‘potentially incendiary steps’, The ‘Superdelegates’: Always Intended to be Independent, and Clinton ‘Interested in Acquiring Delegates, Period’.