The Explainer: Superdelegates

The final moments of Robert F. Kennedy’s life, as chronicled in the TV movie, “RFK.” Recently, the Democratic party in America, which reveres the Kennedy’s, was hit by the hard news that the last surviving Kennedy brother, Ted Kennedy, has a malignant brain tumor. Then candidate Hillary Clinton caused a furor when she said she wouldn’t give up contesting her party’s nomination, invoking the ill-fated RFK campaign.

Forty years ago, in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy fought the last of the idealistic campaigns; since then, the Democratic party and American politics have been embroiled in increasingly vicious competition.

Getting a grip on the hand-to-hand fighting in American party politics today, is our topic for tonight. This is the Explainer, and I’m Manolo Quezon.


I.  Our neutered political parties


Since 1935, political parties here at home, have put forward candidates nominated by the party, to contest the presidency. Prior to World War II, neither the only real party that existed, the Nacionalista Party, or the public, had much of a choice. This Free Press editorial cartoon said it all, as far as what politics, including party politics, was like:

But as we’ve recently seen in Malaysia, where a grumpy Mahathir recently bolted his party, that a party, even after decades of enjoying one-party rule, can fall apart in an instant.

And so it was in 1946, when the Nacionalista Party split, 40 years of one party rule ended, and the Osmena-Roxas contest inaugurated a two-party system our prewar politicians had labored decades to prevent. For a generation after that, the Nacionalistas and their former brethren, the Liberals, duked it out.

As the old prewar politicians faded from the scene, party politics became more vigorous.

If you read accounts like this one,


Which appeared in the Philippines Free Press, you’d be surprised how much more democratic the process for selecting a party candidate seems to have been, compared to today. Party elders got together and put forward candidates, but the delegates that attended the convention had to be wined and dined, spoken to and appealed with, to pick their party’s choice.

Which is not to say the party veterans operated in an entirely free market.

In 1957, President Carlos P. Garcia, nowhere near as popular as the recently deceased Magsaysay, famously responded to the skeptics by saying that only a stupid president would fail to obtain his party’s nomination –and, as Garcia put it, “I’m not stupid.”

In 1961, NP delegates attending their convention at the Araneta Colliseum were wined, dined, treated to the 1950s equivalent of GRO’s on a scale that shocked the public. But it was to be the last hoorah of the old-fashioned party convention.

By 1965, when the country witnessed a three-cornered fight between LP incumbent Macapagal, NP contender Marcos, and Party for Philippine Progress upstart Manglapus, our party system had begun to fall apart. Magsaysay’s charisma had blunted the influence of the old guard; Macapagal’s retail approach to politics –trying to shake hands with every single voter in every single island- had reduced the importance of party machines;

And to this we should add, the end of chivalry in politics, as demonstrated by the victory of this man-

Ferdinand Marcos, long-time Liberal but who turned Nacionalista when Diosdado Macapagal turned back on his promise to serve out only one term-

And the defeat of this man-

Emmanuel Pelaez, also a former Liberal and indeed, Macapagal’s former vice president.

The defeat was due to a simple difference between the two men. There was nothing Marcos would stop at, to secure the Nacionalista nomination. When the Lopezes initially blocked Marcos, he sent Imelda to cry in front of Eugenio Lopez and his opposition melted away.

On the other hand, asked if he would agree to bribing delegates, Pelaez said no and so, he lost.

Martial Law under Marcos brought back a situation last seen during the Japanese Occupation. Political parties were discouraged, and what Marcos tried to set up, instead, was his Kilusang Bangong Lipunan, a throwback to the Japanese-Era KALIBAPI.

After Edsa, the old NP and LP, in the hands of old men, never quite recaptured their old influence. New parties were created. But lacking the old provincial networks and diehard membership, they’ve often tried to emulate the KBL, growing fat and powerful during the presidencies of their leaders then withering away when new presidents are elected.

For much of her administration, President Arroyo, for one, relied on the Lakas-CMD machinery set up by former President Ramos and former Speaker de Venecia, which had its origins when Ramos lost the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino party convention, causing him to bolt his party.

Our parties have never recovered from that move, and today, our parties are de kahon –created to contain the ambitions of candidates, and not organic entities with their own traditions and active membership.

When we return, how the Americans do it –party politics, I mean.


II. An American discomfort


The way America chooses its presidents has changed over the years. This is because the founding generation of the United States wanted democracy, but also had misgivings about mob rule. So they designed ways to limit the popular enthusiasms of the people. To be sure, the people could vote –but for representatives, who were expected to be calmer, more responsible, and more conservative, than the country bumpkins voting for them.

To this day, technically the American people don’t vote for their president, but instead, their votes determine the election of their states’ delegates to the Electoral College.

The number of delegates, called electors, each state can send varies, according to population, which is why American presidential campaigns today tend to focus on big, delegate-rich states.

How each state determines its electors is up to each state; some states have a winner-take-all system; others have proportional representation. The electors do the actual voting for the president and vice-president who run on a unified ticket. Technically, they don’t have to follow their states’ instructions, but powerful traditions dictates that they do.

Way back when,

It was all supposed to take place in a gentlemanly, even clubby atmosphere. Whoever came in second, for example, would then be Vice-President.

But this system broke down, early on, because by the second presidential election in 1796, a new institution had emerged. That institution was the political party. In the Washington administration, a network of administration supporters had emerged calling themselves Federalists. This man –

Thomas Jefferson, who came in second in 1796 and became John Adam’s Vice-President, opposed them and his network of supporters organized into what is known today as the Democratic Party.

Jefferson then won the presidency in 1800 in a deadlocked election that resulted in a constitutional amendment obliging electors to vote separately for the president and vice-president starting in 1804. But for our purposes, what’s interesting is that even for parties, from Jefferson onwards, it wasn’t the public who selected party candidates, but rather, party elders. Specifically, congressmen.

This wrinkled old man, in his prime, destroyed the old system of congressmen picking presidential candidates. Andrew Jackson, a general and a populist, shattered the control of party elders when he ran anyway after his congressional supporters boycotted the party caucus. By 1834, congressional caucuses had been abandoned and party conventions were in place.

Conventions have two main purposes: to select the party’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and to agree upon the party’s platform for the coming election.

Until quite recently, delegates were local party bosses, who would then get together and cut deals as to who would be their nominee.

In 1920, General Leonard Wood won the New Hampshire primary for the Republican Party nomination, but in the convention, he and other top candidates ended up deadlocked. Party leaders huddled and, in what a wire service report immortalized as a “smoke-filled room,” the party elders compromised on the pleasant Ohio Senator Warren Harding –seen here shaking hands with Wood- who went on to win the presidency. He promptly took care of Wood’s political ambitions by appointing him Governor-General of the Philippines where Filipino politicians tore him apart.

This is the kind of party politics Filipino leaders campaigning for our independence encountered in America, when they’d observe party conventions and try to convince the parties to insert a plank on Philippine independence in the party platforms.

The importance of the party plank’s demonstrated by President Aguinaldo’s hope that this candidate –

William Jennings Bryan of the Democratic Party, would win, because he supported independence. But Bryan lost.

I(n the news, you often hear of “primaries.” The purpose of a primary is simple. It’s meant to bring the electorate, itself, into the selection process for candidates. In the late 19th century, some states tried to be more democratic by having the electorate itself tell delegates what to do. But this remained the exception and not the rule until the watershed year of 1968 –the year Robert F. Kennedy ran for his party’s nomination but was assassinated before the convention took place.

In 1968, the Democrats held a convention in Chicago where the old time bosses clashed with a new generation of political activists. Candidates like Kennedy had participated in primaries, campaigning on an anti-war platform. But the party elders in the convention selected Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who hadn’t even participated in the primaries, as the party’s candidate, in large part because the party bosses supported continuing the Vietnam War.

A defeated candidate in 1968 headed a party commission to make the nomination process more in keeping with what the public wanted, and that candidate, George McGovern, went on to win a process that was more primary-based in 1972. He lost the race for the presidency, though, but after that, both parties essentially conduct two campaigns.

The first is for the party nomination and the second is the actual presidential campaign.

Each party follows its own rules as to how delegates are picked, and how primaries are held.

An interesting thing is that even non-Democrats can participate in the primary process. In many ways, this mirrors overall political reality.

This pie chart shows the general political divisions in America. The Democratic party has more card carry members than the Republicans, but independent voters constitute a large chunk and can make or break either party.

And so if each party, like the Democrats, take a look at this pie chart, which shows the internal dynamics of the party, has its own constituencies to please, allowing the public at large to participate in the primary process, also serves to test potential candidates in terms of their acceptability to the public as a whole.

Still, the campaign, prior to the party conventions, is an internal party matter. At stake are delegates, and each state has different ways of selecting them. This purple and green map shows how the two main Democratic contenders have done differently in different states –this is important, because in some states, it can mean they can still get a handful of delegates even if they lose the state. Each candidate, by competing in the primaries, is trying to sew up a bagful of committed, or pledged, delegates.

But what complicates things further is that while the electorate on the whole, now tells delegates what to do, there remain delegates whom no one can instruct. They’re popularly called superdelegates but more accurately, are unpledged delegates, and they’re a throwback in many ways, to the pre-Jackson ways of picking candidates, and even the pre-MCGovern ways of picking delegates.

That’s because superdelegates in the Democratic party are delegates by virtue of their being party bosses, either as congressmen, governors, or state party bigwigs. They constitute 20% of the total number of delegates, and in a close race for the nomination, their votes are up for grabs. The Democratic convention will have 4,049 delegates, but of these, about 796 are superdelegates. Nomination requires around 2,025 votes. Right now, Barak Obama with 1,976 pledged delegates,  only needs 49 more votes to be the official candidate of his party. Hillary Clinton who has 1,779 pledged delegates, needs about 246 votes more.

And so, this is why the battle royal between the two Democratic hopeful continues.

I’d like to recommend some interesting readings and resources.

A background on the issues that united and divided America’s founding generation’s in this book,

And for a look into the nuts and bolts of old-style party politics, see this book:

You can track the development of the modern American campaign with the landmark book,

And then, this book:

on 1968 and the rise of the more vicious politics we see today.

Online, developments in the primary races in the USA are regularly found in:




And there’s a blog by a distinguished American historian, David Kaiser, called History Unfolding:

It has very interesting entries on themes and issues in American politics that won’t go away, or are changing very fast.

When we return, we’ll talk to a Democrat abroad!


My view


It’s been said that having to choose between people who put themselves forward without anyone else having a say in the matter, is not really a choice at all.

The American primary system is far from perfect, but while it’s slowly tried to become more democratic, our own way of choosing presidential candidates has become less and less democratic and less transparent. Before World War II, party leaders emerged over decades; after World War II, while leaders changed parties, there remained a loyal rank-and-file in the parties who had to be lobbied if a candidate was to secure a nomination.

Since Edsa, candidates come first, and parties are merely an afterthought. Today, Pinoy Big Brother where you get to kick out people from Big Brother’s House, is even more democratic than our party system.

People have proposed to put the people back in politics, and take the choosing of who will get to be a candidate away from the insiders. Perhaps more of us should give this idea some thought. Civic groups, for examplecould in the vacuum and conducting debates on a provincial or regional level. Perhaps that way, truly fresh blood could emerge and reinvigorate our tired and cynical political system.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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