First off, how do delegates become delegates?
Michael Heaney: There’s no one way people become delegates. It’s a state-by-state process. The state parties decide and they have different rules. Before the 1970s, delegates were primarily selected by party elites.
In 1968, the Democratic Convention was incredibly acrimonious; activists felt like they and the general public were ignored by the party elites. In response, the Democrats created the McGovern-Fraser Commission to give minority groups better representation in the party. Through widespread use of primaries and caucuses and rules, the Commission made the conventions and the parties more open to the people. Before 1972, you didn’t necessarily have to run in the primaries to be a presidential candidate. In the 1960s you might run in a few primaries to demonstrate your support, but you didn’t need to come to the convention having run in primaries. You could just make your case directly to delegates at the convention.
What about superdelegates?
MH: On the Democratic side, superdelegates are elected officials and senior members of the party who automatically become part of the delegation thanks to their position. The Republicans allot three superdelegates for each state: the chair of the state party, one committee man, and one committee woman.
After the Democrats made their nomination process more open and democratic at the 1968 convention, they had two terrible presidential elections. They said, you know, we opened this up too much. We’ve effectively made it too democratic. After Jimmy Carter, who was a beneficiary of this more open process, lost badly to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Democrats created superdelegates to give the party establishment some say and influence if the nomination was close. This year it was close, which is kind of unusual.
Superdelegates are much less significant in the Republican Party. They are bound to the candidate chosen by their states’ primary elections. Since Trump had the delegates he needed to win his party’s nomination, the superdelegates weren’t a factor for the Republicans in this election, like they could have been for the Democrats.
Did the superdelegates turn out to be as important as they were hyped to be?
MH: As expected, the superdelegates swung to Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, giving her the majority that she needed to secure the nomination. It's hard to imagine that they would have done otherwise. If there had been no superdelegates—and the nomination was determined strictly on the basis of delegates selected in the primaries and caucuses—then Hillary Clinton still would have won the Democratic nomination. Superdelegates are likely to be much more important in a case where no one candidate won a clear majority of the pledged delegates, such as in a close, three-way race.
In both parties’ conventions, the demonstrations on the floor and outside of the conventions didn’t turn out to be as volatile as some anticipated they might be. Will these conventions, their unusual events, and their demonstrations have any lasting effect on future party rules or conventions?
The demonstrations by delegates on the floor of the conventions were much more unruly than is typical. The booing from delegates after Ted Cruz's speech—in which he refused to endorse Donald Trump—is not a very common scene at political conventions, which tend to be well-orchestrated television commercials for the parties. Likewise, Bernie Sanders supporters weighed in vocally throughout the conventions by booing and chanting. Many delegates chanted “no more war” during Leon Panetta’s speech, for example. These incidents suggest a fraying of the parties’ coalitions and that party politics will remain contentious in the coming years.
The size of the protests outside the conventions were not atypical of what we have seen at conventions over the past 16 years. Police showed much more restraint in making arrests than they have in recent years. The absence of organizing by the antiwar movement this year made the protests a bit less coordinated than they usually are. The most unusual development was that the DNC protests focused on advocating for a candidate who lost in the primaries, in this case Bernie Sanders. Something similar has not happened since 1968, when supporters of Eugene McCarthy were among those gathered outside the DNC in Chicago.
What will we remember the 2016 political conventions for?
MH: The conventions will be remembered for the unusual lack of support that Donald Trump received from the Republican establishment at the RNC and the nomination of the first woman for the presidency by a major political party at the DNC.