February 2016 headlines from The New York Times, Democracy Now, and liberal website U.S. Uncut declared, respectively, “Delegate Count Leaving Bernie Sanders With Steep Climb,” “Could Unelected Superdelegates Give Clinton the Nomination Even if Sanders Wins the Primaries?,” and “The DNC Just Screwed Over Bernie Sanders and Spit in Voters’ Faces,” fueling near-panic among many Bernie Sanders supporters.
At issue are the “superdelegates,” Democratic Party leaders from each state who can vote for any candidate at the Democratic National Convention, regardless of the primary or caucus result of their state. Superdelegates are distinct from “pledged delegates,” supporters of a specific candidate awarded to their candidate based on primary or caucus outcome.
Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz explained, “Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.” This statement, honest considering the history of superdelegates, outraged many who back Sanders.
Currently, with the Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada contests behind them, Clinton and Sanders each have 51 pledged delegates (Iowa and Nevada were extraordinarily close, and Sanders won New Hampshire soundly).
But Clinton has 451 superdelegates to Sanders’ 19.
There are 712 superdelegates total. 2,383 total delegates, pledged and super, are needed to secure the nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention in July.
Sites like U.S. Uncut warn Clinton’s “deep connections within the political establishment,” her loyal superdelegates, could determine the election, undermining democracy and overruling the vote of the people and the delegates they won for their candidate. They encouraged citizens to sign a petition demanding superdelegates conform to the will of the voters.
Senator Patrick Leahy, one of Vermont’s superdelegates, publicly announced he will vote for Clinton at the Convention even if Sanders wins Vermont. Which is likely, as Sanders is a senator from Vermont and holds a commanding lead in the polls.
But Paste Magazine argues that “establishment figures want to scare you with superdelegates,” wondering “if the explicit goal is to have a chilling effect on participation, and to discourage passionate people from participating in our democracy…” It points out:
Superdelegates have never decided a Democratic nomination. It would be insane, even by the corrupt standards of the Democratic National Committee, if a small group of party elites went against the will of the people to choose the presidential nominee.
This has already been an incredibly tense election, and Sanders voters are already expressing their unwillingness to vote for Clinton in the general election. When you look at the astounding numbers from Iowa and New Hampshire, where more than 80 percent of young voters have chosen Sanders over Clinton, regardless of gender, it’s clear that Clinton already finds herself in a very tenuous position for the general election. It will be tough to motivate young supporters, but any hint that Bernie was screwed by the establishment will result in total abandonment.
Democrats win when turnout is high, and if the DNC decides to go against the will of the people and force Clinton down the electorate’s throat, they’d be committing political suicide.
In the Democracy Now article cited above, David Rhode, political science professor at Duke University, when asked if Sanders could win the pledged delegates but lose because of superdelegates, replied:
It is possible. I don’t think it’s very likely. I mean, it’s funny, as I’ve had this kind of conversation eight years ago, when Obama and Clinton were facing off, talking to people from the media. And the reality is that, especially when there are only two candidates, the likelihood is that this is going to be settled long before the convention happens. And so, we’re not going to go down to the wire and have the superdelegates decide the outcome. It’s possible that it will happen, but it’s extremely unlikely, I think.
Yet Matt Karp, professor of history at Princeton University, also being interviewed, pointed out Sanders has so few superdelegates in his camp at this point it could “create a situation that I think is going to put the system to the test in a way that the 2008 campaign didn’t necessarily do.”
Alternet said the “panic” over superdelegates was “rooted in lazy reporting.” The emphasis on Clinton’s superdelegate lead “plays well with Sanders supporters who have a deep distrust of the party establishment” but there is little chance “they will come into play in the first place.”
…It’s hard to imagine the super delegates would dare to buck the will of Democratic primary voters by swinging the count to Clinton’s favor…
David Karol, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and author of The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform, told me that “there is no historical evidence that super delegates have the backbone to go against a candidate who is leading the primary and caucus voting.”
Back in September, as Democracy Now notes, Sanders said at a Democratic National Committee meeting:
In terms of superdelegates, let me say this. The people in here are smart people; they’re not dummies. They want to see a Democrat win the White House. And I understand that, you know, Secretary Clinton’s people have been talking to these folks for a very, very long time, so she has a huge advantage over us in that respect…
But I think as our campaign progresses, as people see us do better and better, you’re going to see a lot of superdelegates—I just met with one as I was walking in 10 minutes ago who said, “Well, you swayed me. I’m on your side now.” I think you’re going to see that. So, it’s one thing for people to say, “Well, you know, I’m with the secretary today.” We’ll see where people will be three months from now.
March, with its flood of primaries and caucuses across the nation, is mere days away.
For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.