For months, superdelegates, or unelected representatives of the Democratic Party who have votes at the nominating convention, have loomed large as a force in the presidential primary. Hillary Clinton has dominated Bernie Sanders in “committed” superdelegates (though they can always change their vote), and Sanders and his supporters are vocal about the uphill battle they’ve faced as a result of the Democratic establishment’s pro-Clinton bias.
Superdelegates aren’t small-d “democratic.” They aren’t bound to represent the will of their state’s Democrats, and in this primary season especially, many chose a candidate to support before their state’s voters even indicated their own preferences.
Still, superdelegates know that voters see them as undemocratic: in 2008, as it became clear Barack Obama would beat Hillary Clinton, superdelegates supporting Clinton switched their vote to support him in order to keep the party united. There’s no winning a general election if you defy the will of the people.
Which is why it’s especially rich that Bernie Sanders’s campaign has begun recruiting superdelegates to challenge Clinton’s increasingly large lead.
After Sanders’s huge wins in Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii on Saturday, he went on television to make his case.
“A lot of these superdelegates may rethink their position with Hillary Clinton,” he said on CNN. After such large states had supported him in such large numbers, he went on, they should re-evaluate their allegiance.
In an interview for the Washington Post, Sanders advisor Tad Devine told Greg Sargent that “Sanders would call for this [superdelegate] switch if Sanders trailed in the popular vote and was very close behind in the pledged delegate count, too.”
But in November, Devine told the Associated Press that “The best way to win support from superdelegates is to win support from voters.”
Now who’s being undemocratic?
I support Sanders’s campaign for president. But more than that, I support the “revolution” of newly-politically engaged primary and general election voters he claimed would transform American politics into a fairer arena. If such a revolution fails to win the majority of democratically-elected delegates, and even fails to win the majority of the popular vote, how can it be said to be a revolution at all?
There’s a case to be made that Clinton’s early advantage in committed superdelegate support may have discouraged would-be Sanders supporters from voting for him, but that doesn’t seem likely: First, Sanders and Clinton have long been the only two viable Democratic candidates, so why wouldn’t primary voters choose Sanders even if they knew about Clinton’s superdelegate lead? And also, as the “anti-establishment” candidate of the pair, Sanders’s populist support has more often than not been emphasized by Clinton’s superdelegate support, not undermined by it.
The question then is: what are Sanders’s real metrics for political success? If he continues with his current delegate strategy, it seems popular support isn’t one of them.
Photo: Bernie Sanders leaves after holding a rally at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington March 25, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder