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Conventional Wisdom: Delegates, Conventions and Nominations

July 08, 2016

The 2016 party conventions mark the end of a long and difficult primary season, one which has brought nomination process questions to the forefront of the national dialogue. Americans have been faced with the complexities of the roles of delegates and conventions in choosing the parties’ nominees. Such controversies have arisen in earlier elections, and the public has shown some perhaps surprising views of how the process should work. A historical review of public opinion on the nomination process:

The Conventional Role

Substantial polling evidence indicated that Americans have long been skeptical of the nomination process, with consistent preference for a more direct selection of nominees by voters, despite the declining importance of the party convention. Majorities in polls from 1952 to 1988 preferred the idea of a national primary election to political party conventions, with interest in a national primary reaching a peak after the controversial 1968 conventions.

Graph showing that from 1952-1988 over 60% of the voters want presidential candidates to be chosen by voters versus political party conventions

Various polls from 1976 to 1996 offered Americans multiple options for potential nomination processes. Although changing question wordings prevent direct comparisons, the idea of direct national primary without a convention seems to have become more acceptable as memories of conventions that played a major role in choosing the nominee faded into the distant past.

Americans Preferences for Nomination Process 1976 1996

The voters don’t just support the national primary over the conventions as the mechanism of selection, they also are interested in doing away with the primary season in favor of a single nominating election day. CBS polls from 1996 to 2008 found strong majorities in favor a moving to a single national primary day. More recently, a 2015 Suffolk University poll found slightly lower support, despite a strongly worded question that might have reminded some voters of the shortcomings of the current system: 54% of the country supported a national primary election held on one day as opposed to “the current, state-based process that takes over six months” (35%).

Single Primary Day Versus Different Primary Days

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a superdelegate!

Superdelegates were added to the Democratic process in 1982 in response to concerns that party leadership had been given too little influence in the changes made to the nomination process after the 1968 convention. The first public opinion questions about superdelegates, however, didn’t appear until 2008. In a March CNN/ORC poll that year, half of registered Democrats said they thought it was a bad idea to have superdelegates not chosen in primaries or caucuses and able to support any candidate they want. Further, a 2008 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked Democrat primary voters whether they would consider a nominee legitimate if that candidate lost among the pledged delegates, but won a majority from support of superdelegates. Just under a third thought such a nominee would be legitimate, 41% disagreed, 27% had no opinion or weren’t sure.

Democratic voters in 2008 appeared to be uncertain about what superdelegates’ role should be. Multiple polling organizations asked the public how these delegates ought to vote, and responses varied substantially. For example, in a February 2008 Pew poll of Democrats and leaners, 63% said that super delegates should vote for the candidate who won in the primaries and caucuses, while 32% said they should vote for the candidate they thought best. But a LA Times/Bloomberg poll that same month found likely primary voters split, with 45% saying superdelegates should vote as they like, and 44% saying they should vote for the candidate that won their state. By April, a slight majority solidified around superdelegates basing their vote on the primary results, not their own beliefs. In a PSRA/Newsweek poll, 38% of Democrats and leaners said superdelegates should support the candidate with the biggest share of the popular vote, 12% the candidate with the most delegates, and 46% the candidate they judged best qualified. Similarly, a Pew poll found 53% wanted superdelegates to vote for the candidate who won the most support in the primaries and caucuses, and 40% wanted to candidate who had the best chance of defeating McCain.

Polls in this year’s election have found roughly the same breakdown, with a slight majority of 53% in a April CBS News poll saying they prefer superdelegates to vote for the candidate with the most votes, while a substantial minority of 43% saying they should vote for whomever they think is best.

Nomination controversies in specific elections: 1980-2016

The 1980 Democratic convention was the last time a candidate made a major effort to claim the nomination despite going into the convention without a majority of delegates. Ted Kennedy had failed in his primary bid against incumbent President Jimmy Carter, but swept the last few primaries. In a last-ditch attempt to win the nomination, Ted Kennedy suggested a rule change to free delegates to vote their preference on the first round of voting. A poll by CBS News/New York Times completed a week before the convention found that only 31% of respondents thought delegates should be required to vote for the candidate they had committed themselves to in order to properly represent the voters. Sixty-four percent believed that, if conditions had changes, the delegates should be able to vote for a different candidate. However, in an NBC News/AP poll completed at the same time, 56% of those who had heard about the debate thought delegates should vote for the candidate they were elected to represent, 40% thought they should vote for whomever they wanted. Wording differences may have made for this difference in perception; the NBC/AP poll made no mention of “changing conditions.”

The 1984 convention was far less bitter, though not without its controversies. Jesse Jackson failed in an attempt to bring about a rule change to give him delegates in proportion to his share of the primary vote, rather than the lower number he received. Public opinion was against him. June 1984 polling of Democratic likely voters by Louis Harris and Associates found that 55% believed the delegates should be left as they were elected, while 44% thought they should be redistributed to match the popular vote. A May Harris poll on the topic showed similar results. By July, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found just 27% saying Jesse Jackson should be awarded more delegates because his share of delegates was smaller than his share of the popular vote; 66% said no. In 1988, some speculated that Jesse Jackson might, in a reverse of 1984, outperform his rivals in the delegate count while losing the popular vote. A Roper/U.S. News and World Report poll found 54% of Americans thought Jackson should receive the nomination in that case; 28% thought it should go to someone else.

In April 1992, with no candidate yet the clear winner in the Democratic race, Gallup asked registered Democrats and Democratic leaners whether, if there were to be an open convention with no candidate securing the nomination on the first ballot, new candidates should be considered by the convention or only those who had run in the primaries. A strong majority of 61% said that the convention should consider candidates who had not participated in the primaries. A 1996 Newsweek/PSRA poll of registered Republicans and leaners also showed considerable support for the idea of choosing a new candidate in the case of an open convention. Just 25% said that choosing a candidate who didn’t run in the primaries wouldn’t be good for the party; 40% said it would be good if the candidate had a good chance to beat Clinton, and 22% thought it would be good only if the candidate in question were Colin Powell.

No polls in the archive speculated about nomination process controversies in the 2000 or 2004 races. The majority of questions posited in the 2008 election focused on the superdelegate question, but an April Newsweek poll found that nearly half of Democrats and leaners would want the party to consider nominating Al Gore if neither Obama nor Clinton was able to secure the nomination before the convention. In the 2012 primary, 37% of Republicans and leaners in a Quinnipiac poll thought that if an open convention were to occur, it would be good for the party to nominate someone who didn’t run in the primaries; 48% said no.

In this year’s election, polling centered on the possibility that the Republicans might enter their convention with Donald Trump holding the most delegates, but not enough to win the nomination on the first round of balloting. Majorities consistently supported Trump becoming the nominee in this scenario. Most Democratic voters also did not want convention upsets. In a June CBS poll, 64% of primary voters wanted Bernie Sanders to support Clinton; just under a third wanted him to fight to become the nominee at the convention.

Republican Convention Scenarios


It’s unlikely this year’s conventions will include any challenges to the presumptive nominees, despite 2016 being a year of election surprises. But public opinion is clear: Americans expect the candidate with the most delegates after the primaries to carry the nomination, a position consistent with overall public support for the relatively direct democracy of the primary process over the party-controlled conventions of yesteryear.