Yesterday we saw that Donald Trump is the only Republican candidate left with a realistic chance of achieving a majority of delegates before the convention. As complicated as figuring that out was, the Democratic Party’s nomination contest is even more of a mess. Let’s deal with the most confusing aspect right at the top: superdelegates.
First, let’s be clear that superdelegates are an abomination and an affront to democracy. The Democratic Party should be embarrassed that this undemocratic relic still exists. The Democratic National Committee should have disposed of the superdelegate system after 2008, when the Barack Obama – Hillary Clinton contest involved way too much time and energy arguing over what was the proper role of superdelegates. There’s a simple way to end this nonsense and that’s just get rid of it. It is not a good look for a political party claiming to be against plutocracy to be giving plutocrats an opportunity to override the will of the voters. I swear, it seems like DNC officials sit around trying to think of ways to lose elections sometimes.
The superdelegate system, which allows 712 Democratic Party insiders to vote for whomever they want at the convention, accounts for 15% of the 4,763 total delegates. Since a candidate needs 2,382 delegates to win an outright majority, superdelegates could provide as much as 30% of the votes needed to push a preferred candidate over the top.
While it’s unlikely that superdelegates are willing to risk breaking the Democratic Party in two in order to get their preferred candidate on the ballot, their votes would be required to form a majority if a candidate finishes with less than 58.8% of elected delegates. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight wrote a great piece about this in February. Flipping things around, there’s 41.2% – that’s the percentage of elected delegates a candidate could win the nomination with if 100% of superdelegates voted for him or her.
Silver reminded us that superdelegates, wary of going against the will of the voters, are likely to see which way the wind is blowing and support the candidate with a majority of elected delegates. This is exactly what happened in 2008, when Clinton again started the nomination process with a large superdelegate lead only to see that shrink and vanish as Obama won more and more elected delegates.
The nightmare scenario is something like this: Clinton wins 49.9% of elected delegates, Bernie Sanders wins 50.1%, and superdelegates hand the nomination to Clinton. If we thought trying to convince staunch Sanders supporters that the Democratic Party is their natural home was difficult before, wait until the Party Establishment steals the nomination from him!
This all stinks. Now we’re treated to the spectacle of Sanders suggesting he may try to overtake Clinton through superdelegates if he can’t do it with elected delegates. Of course, it was Sanders and his supporters complaining about the superdelegates back in the fall of 2015 when Clinton enjoyed a huge superdelegate lead before a single vote had been cast. Now they may try to use superdelegates to steal the nomination from Clinton! A system that encourages your members to look like a bunch of hypocrites is really not an ideal system.
All that said, it is unlikely that superdelegates will go against the majority of elected delegates. Though it’s clear they overwhelmingly support Clinton, it looks like voters are going to save them from having to boost her from behind Sanders. The race is definitely not over, but Clinton is in good position to achieve a substantial majority of elected delegates. Here’s the math (thanks to FiveThirtyEight):
- Hillary Clinton has won 1,233 elected delegates, which is 57% of delegates awarded so far. That leaves her 793 shy of a majority of elected delegates and 1,149 shy of a majority of all delegates (elected and superdelegates). To win a majority of elected delegates and claim the will of the Party’s electorate she needs to win 42% of the remaining elected delegates. To win a majority of all delegates without needing a single superdelegate, she needs to win 61% of remaining elected delegates.
- Bernie Sanders has won 929 elected delegates, which is 43% of delegates awarded so far. That leaves him 1,097 shy of a majority of elected delegates and 1,453 shy of a majority of all delegates. To win a majority of elected delegates and claim the will of the Party’s electorate he needs to win 58% of the remaining elected delegates. To win a majority of all delegates without needing a single superdelegate, he needs to win 77% of remaining elected delegates.
Clinton is not far off the pace she needs to take the superdelegate question off the table entirely, and she is in a commanding position to win a majority of elected delegates. Sanders is way off the pace needed to win the nomination without substantial help from superdelegates, and he’s in a tough but not impossible spot with respect to a majority of elected delegates.
Sanders could still overtake Clinton in elected delegates, but it will be a difficult task. Since the Democratic Party’s nomination process awards delegates proportionally, he’ll have to win 58% of remaining delegates to reach a majority of elected delegates. Clinton has big polling leads in delegate-rich states like New York, California, and Pennsylvania. Even ties in those states would hurt Sanders. Blowing Clinton out like he did in Utah and Idaho helps, but he needs to be more competitive than he’s been so far in populous, diverse states.
Who knows? It could happen, like when Sanders surprised everyone by winning in Michigan. There’s time now for people in the remaining states to digest information and think more critically about how the candidates might match up against a probable Trump candidacy. At the very least, Sanders supporters are making sure he will stay in the race and be in position to demand concessions at the convention in July.