Superdelegates, round two

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Back on April 15, Robert Beard posted an entry on "Dr. Goodword's Language Blog" about the word superdelegate, writing that "the US press is pushing a new word into our collective vocabulary in an apparent attempt to tilt the US elections in the direction it prefers" (i.e., in the direction of Barack Obama to the detriment of Hillary Clinton). He hammered the point home, calling superdelegate a "new pejorative term," a "new epithet," and so forth. A few days later I pointed out here that the word is in no way new: it can be documented from 1981 and was becoming firmly entrenched in non-pejorative political usage by the time of the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Dr. Beard/Goodword has now responded in the comments section and has revised his original post, so I'd like to follow up on his latest points.

First, I appreciate the compliment left in the comments that "Mr. Benjamin did a better job of research than did I" (even if Benjamin is actually my first name!). He goes on to say:

However, all the citations here are from the early 80s and all are in print. My point was the use of the term in the current broadcast media to discredit the Convention system and build a tool for discrediting Senator Clinton should she be elected by the same procedures we have used since the founding of the nation.

The examples I gave were from the early '80s because I was most interested in establishing the incipient usage of the term, showing that it was circulating in mainstream journalism by 1984. Had I cared to, I could have detailed hundreds of more recent media mentions (for more on that, see below). Obviously the term has gained more prominence in this election cycle because it's the first time that the choice made by superdelegates has mattered so much. It's a unique situation in the time since the system's formal institution at the '84 Convention, and it's obviously worth a great deal of media attention.

Beard continues:

While I certainly have to reword my comment that the broadcast media "concocted" the word, the remainder of my article, I think, stands. The issue I raised was, why is the broadcast media suddenly focussing on a word that few if any of their viewers know (or remember)? Whether the word was concocted or dredged up does not bear directly on that issue.

The Dr. Goodword post has already been reworded, with the original version expunged from the site. (That strikes me as a violation of basic blogging etiquette: when wording is significantly changed, the original ought to be maintained somehow, at least using the strikethrough feature like so in HTML.) The first sentence now reads:

The US press is dredging up a word from the early 80s and using it in a new, suggestive sense in an apparent attempt to tilt the US elections in the direction it prefers.

And in a comment to his post (responding to Mark Mandel, who pointed to the same early citations that I did), Beard wrote:

The word may have been used once or twice in the 80s but it never threatened to become a part of the language until recently, as I said.

Just as it doesn't take a huge amount of research savvy to determine that superdelegate isn't a brand-new term, it is likewise a simple task in the age of Google to determine that it isn't newly "dredged up." For starters, you could check out free online dictionaries like those from Random House (1997) and American Heritage (2000) to see that the word had achieved lexicographical recognition well before this year. Furthermore, you don't need access to a subscription-only news archive like LexisNexis, Factiva, NewsBank, ProQuest, or NewspaperArchive to do your own quick-and-dirty research on usage trends. I recommend Google News Archive to Beard and anyone else tempted to make claims about seemingly recent developments in the American political lexicon. Even though it links to subscription services, it usually gives you enough in "snippet view" to make judgments about, say, the 8,000 appearances of superdelegate that it has catalogued over the past three decades. (Google News Archive has some of the same misdating problems that plague Google Book Search, but on the whole it's a reliable tool.)

One nice feature of Google News Archive is the "timeline" function, which gives you a snapshot of the historical ebbs and flows of a particular search term. Here's the timeline for superdelegate (hyphenated or unhyphenated, singular or plural) since 1981:


There's a big spike in 2008 as we'd expect (with the great increase in online news sources also no doubt playing a part), but we can see smaller spikes in almost every previous presidential election cycle. A word of warning: Google's timeline doesn't simply count the frequency of a search term in sources from a given year, but also includes "web pages that describe events from the past" (according to this announcement). So in order to avoid those after-the-fact additions, here are the raw numbers of Google News Archive hits for superdelegate in election years:

1984: 34
1988: 316
1992: 219
1996: 18
2000: 131
2004: 326
2008: 5,590

The only real outlier is 1996, with a paltry 18 mentions, but that can be explained by the fact that it's the only election year of the past seven cycles in which there was an incumbent Democratic president running unopposed for reelection. In other words, superdelegates really didn't matter that year. In years with contested Democratic primaries, however, the word superdelegate was widely used, albeit not nearly as widely as it has been this year, when the fate of the nomination rests in the hands of the supers.

I hope this puts to bed any notion that superdelegate is either new or newly revived in 2008. It's a quadrennial favorite, easy shorthand for journalists and others who prefer not to use the clunky official term "unpledged PLEO delegate" (or the Clinton campaign's favored designation, "automatic delegate"). If you're inclined to ferret out unfair media bias in favor of Senator Obama's nomination, I agree with Arnold Zwicky that usage of this very well-established political term is not the place to look for it.

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12 Comments »

  1. Tetsuo said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 5:53 am

    I'm still trying to figure out how calling something by its name is somehow pejorative or insulting.

  2. Eyebrows McGee said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 6:17 am

    I'm still trying to figure out how this set of primary procedures has been in use since the founding of the nation, which was, apparently, in 1984 when the Democrats started using them? Or did he mean in 1910 when Oregon kicked off the whole primary voting thing? Or 1832 when the conventions started? I was *pretty* sure the nation was founded in 1789, that there was just the one candidate, and that there was no primary the first time around, but I guess I was wrong.

  3. Steve in Spain said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 8:14 am

    Funnily enough, the term "super delegate" appears to have been coined (or at least popularized) by Susan Estrich, feminist and 2008 Hillary Clinton endorsee! Speaking in September 1981, on behalf of herself and other organized feminists, Estrich criticized the proposal to create a body of unaffiliated delegates, arguing that these "super-delegates" would be overwhlemingly white and male, and thus work to entrench patriarchy. (See http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/18072/history_of_superdelegates_in_the_democratic_party.html?breadcrumb=%2F)
    If she only knew the term would later be coopted by a mass media conspiracy to torpedo the most promising presidential candidacy by a woman in U.S. history!

  4. Bob Lieblich said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    Most people date the founding of the nation to July 4, 1776, but it's true that we didn't start electing presidents via electors until 1788 (or 1789 if you date from the first time electoral votes were counted). And the system we have today is not the system used in the first few presidential elections, when electors were chosen by legislators, not popular vote, and each elector cast two votes for president, with the runner-up as VP. (I believe that it's at least theoretically possible today for a state legislator to decide to choose the state's electors directly, but none dare try.)

    Ben Zimmer plainly has the better of the argument, no doubt because he chose thorough research and reasoned analysis rather than rant as his mode of discourse.

  5. Adrian Bailey said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    What a classic case of the recency illusion! I'm an Englishman living in England and didn't find anything new, surprising or incomprehensible about the term "superdelegate" when people started bandying it about again a few months ago. Surely anyone who's followed past presidential elections will be aware of this word?

    Google News hits for "superdelegates" in 2004: http://news.google.co.uk/archivesearch?q=superdelegates&as_ldate=2004&as_hdate=2004

  6. Paul Wilkins said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

    Did you check with CNN, the Clinton News Network on this?

    Methinks that thick heads are going to continue to read bias into everything. And probably with good reason around half the time. I also think that it is good for folks to be stirred up about this. Conflict drives the plot.

  7. Josh Millard said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

    I don't know if I'm likely to find a more germane setting for this, so:

    On the subject of electoral jargon, I noticed for the first time a few months back the phrase "presidentail preference event" regarding primary/caucus events, and I'm wondering what the history of that is.

    I blogged about it a the time: in short, googling turned up (and still turns up) very little, mostly from new reports on the current season and a few from the previous pres. election cycle. I found DNC regs that use the phrase, for 2008 and 2004, and so I'm curious: how old is the phrase, and did it get significant use in news or conversation before this and the last election?

    (This, too, could be the Recency Illusion in action — I've certainly followed electoral politics more closely this election than in any previous years.

    But I wonder if there's room for a sub-definition, of something like Google-Reinforced Recency Illusion, where a presumed neologism or such is shown mistakenly to be in fact such because of the dearth of back-dated results from general-purpose internet search engines — which themselves are functionally doomed at least at this point to a tremendous bias toward citations from only the last few years.)

  8. Josh Millard said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

    To be clear, I found the phrase in '08 and '04 DNC regulations; I did not search older versions of the documentation to determine whether and how far back the phrase was in use by the DNC prior to '04. I wouldn't be surprised to find it goes back a ways.

  9. Bloix said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

    Prof Zimmer, could we prevail upon you to do a timeline for "automatic delegate" for comparison purposes?

  10. Martyn Cornell said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

    I bet "superdelegate" is still one of the "words of the year" for 2008, though …

  11. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 28, 2008 @ 10:05 am

    @Josh Millard:
    I don't know about the "event" portion, but "presidential preference primary" has certainly been in use for a long time. I remember hearing the phrase in connection with the 1952 presidential elections, when I was a young teen-ager just becoming aware of how the political process works.

  12. chris said,

    May 29, 2008 @ 9:53 am

    This year is the first time I've heard the word, and that's true of one other person I spoke to, too. I'm a 40-year old American, and I'm not following politics as closely as I have in the past. I'm not saying you're wrong about it being common in all the past elections, but I for one missed it entirely or forgot about it for some reason. Maybe something about how or when it gets used? Maybe it's inherently forgettable? I dunno.

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