Donald Trump has officially secured the Republican Party’s nomination now that John Kasich, last man standing by a day, has suspended his campaign. Weirdly, that means it’s the Democratic Party’s nomination that is still up in the air, with Bernie Sanders claiming he will contest the nomination if Hillary Clinton needs superdelegates to get her over the top. Unfortunately for Clinton, it looks like she will in fact need superdelegates for a majority.
However, this requires some context. Just the word “superdelegates” riles people up and makes rational conversation difficult, so let’s try to clarify the situation before we look into the future. First, I’ve written before that the superdelegate system needs to be abolished and I stand by that. In addition, I explained the superdelegate math. Here’s the relevant passage:
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.
Superdelegates are part of the game and everyone who’s playing wants to win. Sanders supporters were outraged by the superdelegate system before voting began, and as I’ll explain, now the Sanders campaign is banking on superdelegates to save his candidacy. This might reek of hypocrisy, but I don’t remember Clinton and her campaign disavowing the system back when she had huge support from superdelegates before a single commoner had cast a vote. Now, the Clinton campaign is aghast that the Sanders campaign would try to win the nomination through manipulation of superdelegates. So, yeah, plenty of apparent hypocrisy for everyone.
The only fair way to resolve this issue is for both camps to agree that democratic legitimacy depends on winning a majority of pledged delegates. Every state and territory sends pledged delegates for candidates to the convention based proportionally on their primary or caucus results. Therefore, pledged delegate count is a reasonable proxy for the popular will. Superdelegates, in the imperfect world in which they still exist, should basically be honorary convention attendees, at least when it comes to voting on the nomination. Ideally, and as they did in 2008, superdelegates simply ratify the choice of the public.
At the moment, the Sanders campaign does not agree to these ground rules. Why not? Well, the simple answer is that Sanders is losing pledged delegates by a big and nearly insurmountable margin, so if he wants to win the game, he needs the superdelegates to be seen as a legitimate part of it and then he needs them to back him overwhelmingly. The hypocrisy is distasteful, but hey, you play to win the game.
How is the Sanders campaign rationalizing this about-face? There seem to be two key arguments: 1) contests that Sanders wins are worth more when they come in a row or later in the election season, so superdelegates should reflect those different weights, and 2) Sanders matches up better against Trump in general election polling so superdelegates should get behind the candidate with the best chance of winning in November.
The first argument is stupid and delegitimizing of Clinton voters. Before we hear protests that only Sanders fanatics are saying this, no actually, Sanders’s top strategist, Tad Devine, is making this case. If we really want to get into weighing the different contests based on their perceived legitimacy, well, Sanders has racked up pledged delegates in caucuses, the least democratic process for selecting delegates. Caucuses result in abysmal voter turnout and tend to privilege wealthier people with the ability to spend time at a caucus. This is a cake that the Sanders campaign can’t have and eat, too.
Leaving aside the toxicity of the first argument for the moment, the second argument is the one that deserves serious consideration and is why the superdelegate system exists in the first place. No Democrat wants to lose a winnable election, which 2016 most certainly is even if the Republican opponent weren’t Trump. Both Clinton and Sanders beat Trump in head-to-head polls, but Sanders leads by significantly larger margins. The Sanders camp would argue that Clinton has negative favorability ratings and therefore is the riskier candidate. The Clinton camp would argue that Clinton is a known quantity and she still beats Trump, most voters don’t really know who Sanders is and wait til Trump calls him a communist, and anyway general election polls this far out historically don’t correlate very well with November results.
That superdelegates exist to guide the Democratic Party to its most viable nominee is a compelling argument. If we accept it, then we are putting a close contest in the hands of 712 unelected party insiders who are free to assess each candidate’s case and vote according to their conscience. Though it’s self-serving for the Sanders campaign to now embrace this argument, again it’s part of the game. I maintain that superdelegates should simply ratify the will of the majority, and after they do that this year, the Democratic Party should eliminate the superdelegate system.
That brings us to the state of the race after Indiana. If you take my position and agree that the 4,051 pledged delegates should determine the nomination, it looks like this:
- Hillary Clinton has 1,701 pledged delegates, which is 325 shy of the minimum 2,026 needed for a majority.
- Bernie Sanders has 1,417, which is 609 shy of the majority threshold.
With 933 pledged delegates still remaining, Clinton needs to win 34.8% to reach a majority and Sanders needs to win 65.2%. Clinton has won 54.6% of pledged delegates awarded so far, while Sanders has won 45.4%.
For the sake of argument, say they maintain the same pace, which is somewhat reasonable since Clinton is expected to do well in California and New Jersey and Sanders is expected to do well in the smaller states such as West Virginia and Oregon. That means Clinton wins 509 more delegates, giving her a total of 2,210, and Sanders wins 424, giving him a total of 1,841. Contest over.
Now, let’s entertain the Sanders campaign contention that the 712 superdelegates should have the final say. A candidate needs 2,382 total delegates for a majority. Clinton would need 172 superdelegates (24%) to put her over the top, while Sanders would need 541 (76%). Are 76% of superdelegates going to find Sanders’s electability argument persuasive? And this isn’t a vacuum; remember, many Democratic Party members are wary of Sanders’s tenuous links with the Party, both rhetorically and financially.
Like in Michigan before, Sanders just pulled off a surprising victory in Indiana. Maybe more surprising victories await, but it’s hard to see him winning substantial majorities in California and New Jersey, which look and behave a lot more like New York where Clinton won big, than they do Washington state, where Sanders won big.
The takeaway? Superdelegates are not going to entertain Sanders’s electability argument unless he wins a majority of pledged delegates. Many are already ambivalent towards him. Also, there’s the precedent of 2008 when superdelegates supported Clinton by a wide margin but many switched to Barack Obama when it became clear he would win the majority of pledged delegates. That contest was even closer than this one and the candidate behind was the one many of the superdelegates preferred, yet they still refused to put her over the top. No way they do that for Sanders. If his campaign wants to win, it’s going to have to do something it hasn’t managed to do yet, which is carry large diverse states with more than 65% of the vote.
This makes one wonder what exactly Sanders is after, and calls back to mind the first argument we identified that his campaign is using to woo superdelegates. Sanders wants to win, of course, and I respect that and am genuinely happy about the good influence he’s already had on Clinton’s campaign. But what exactly does he gain by suggesting that primary votes in the South don’t really count because they happened early and those states never go for the Democrat, when he’s relying on states like Idaho and Kansas that held contests over a month ago and never vote for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate either? Or what good does it do when his strategist says that contests count more when a candidate wins a lot of them in a row or they come later in the process, like Clinton didn’t just win five out of six primaries in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast?
Do Sanders and his campaign staff actually believe this stuff? Are they just undisciplined? Or are they actually trying to tear the Democratic Party apart? These aren’t rhetorical questions.