A headline in the New York Times this week read “Delegate Count Leaving Bernie Sanders with Steep Climb,” accompanied by an even more ominous sounding subtitle: “The delegate count in the Democratic primary shows Mr. Sanders slipping behind Hillary Clinton in the race for the nomination, and the odds of his overtaking her are growing increasingly remote.”
At this point, supporters of either candidate, but especially Senator Sanders (full disclosure: I am a Sanders supporter and campaign volunteer), may be left scratching their heads.
Didn’t Bernie win handily in New Hampshire, virtually tie in Iowa, and lose by a small margin in Nevada?
And, since these states award delegates proportionally, shouldn’t the delegate count be roughly even?
Some quick math confirms as much: the two candidates are tied at 51 pledged delegates apiece.
Yet, Clinton holds a massive delegate lead of 503 to 70. What gives??
The key word in the previous paragraph is “pledged,” referring to the delegates who are awarded proportionally – or “winner-take-all” for some states – based on the actual primary or caucus vote totals.
Making up the balance of the delegates and, and at the time of this writing, tipping the scales massively in favor of Senator Clinton are the “unpledged” delegates, more commonly referred to as “superdelegates.”
Comprised largely of party leaders and elected officials, including all Democratic members of the House and Senate and sitting Democratic Governors, this subset of delegates may support any candidate without qualification, regardless even of the preference of their own constituencies.
There are a total of 715 superdelegates, which is just over 13% of the total delegate count of 5478. Currently, 452 of these delegates have “pledged” (see next paragraph) support for Clinton, versus just 19 for Sanders; 244 remain undecided.
Here’s the rub: these Superdelegates do not cast their vote until the Democratic National Convention, which will not be held until late July.
On what basis, then, is endorsement of one candidate or another at this stage equitable, let alone “democratic?”
In my view it is not, and in fact quite the opposite: an inherently anti-democratic mechanism by which the party attempts to ensure their preferred “establishment” candidate wins the nomination.
What other justification is there for providing party elites with a carte blanche ballot completely disconnected from the will of the electorate?
Lest I be accused of wearing a tinfoil hat, the actions of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to marginalize Senator Sanders in favor of Secretary Clinton have been well documented this election cycle.
First, there was the sharp reduction in the number of primary debates from previous cycles, as well as the burying of many of these in low viewership periods such as weekend nights, despite the loud objections of both the Sanders and O’Malley campaigns.
There is little dispute that the motivation was to keep Secretary Clinton out of the “firing line.”
Then came the party’s mystifying decision to shut off the Sanders campaign’s access to its own data as a result of a breach of Clinton campaign data, despite the fact that the Sanders campaign had previously reported the vendor software error and immediately fired the staffer responsible.
Most recently, and perhaps most incredibly, the DNC quietly rolled back President Obama’s eight-year old ban on contributions from lobbyists, while simultaneously operating joint fundraising operations with the Clinton Campaign.
The latter example is particularly ironic, given that Secretary Clinton has been tying herself closely to President Obama to court minority votes in South Carolina and many Super Tuesday states.
Above all these examples, though, the role of superdelegates is the most egregious because it directly impacts the delegate vote total toward determination of the party nominee. While 13% may not seem high, consider a close race in pledged delegate totals.
Two possibilities emerge: either the Superdelegate majority supports the candidate who is slightly ahead in pledged delegates (i.e., they effectively play no role), or the Superdelegate majority provides enough support to the slightly trailing candidate to push them to the nomination.
In other words, the Superdelegates will only impact the outcome if they directly contradict the choice of the voters.
Further, even the current reporting of delegate totals without adequate contextualization, as in the Times article above, marginalizes the “non-preferred candidate” and may well influence the choice of many voters.
To the DNC and its members: let’s have a fair fight – a democratic contest – and leave the dirty tricks to the other side of the aisle. Get rid of superdelegates.