Why the Panic Over Dem Super Delegates Is Rooted in Lazy Reporting

Election '16

As the Democrats head to Nevada, Bernie Sanders has 36 delegates, Hillary Clinton has 32, but you might not know that if you’ve been exposed to some lazy or sensational journalism suggesting that Clinton is in the lead.

Following the New Hampshire primary, a number of outlets reported that Clinton, rather than Sanders, was ahead in the delegate race because she had secured the backing of a number of Democratic super delegates – officeholders, party activists and officials who are not bound to vote for a candidate at the party’s convention in Philadelphia. In fact, if you Google “Democratic delegates,” this graphic appears:

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And while that storyline plays well with Sanders supporters who have a deep distrust of the party establishment, it’s also complete bullshit – and the last thing anyone should be worried about as we head to the third state on the primary calendar.

There are 712 Democratic super delegates. While they’re free to back whomever they choose at the convention, an Associated Press survey conducted in November found that 359 of them “planned” on supporting Clinton. Only eight said they’d support Sanders. But to count them as Clinton delegates at this stage is putting the cart before the horse in the most ridiculous way.

It’s highly unlikely that they will come into play in the first place. If Sanders were to arrive at the convention with a majority of bound delegates, but fewer than the 2,382 needed to secure the nomination, 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.” Karol notes that the mere suggestion this might happen became a scandal in 2008. “As a party scholar, I am all for super delegates as an institution,” says Karol, “but it’s really unclear whether they retain the legitimacy to do much of anything.” He notes that the only time super delegates played a meaningful role in selecting a nominee was in 1984, when they put Mondale over the top. But, he notes, Mondale “was well ahead of his rivals and that was a long time ago.”

Some Sanders supporters are convinced that the super delegates backing Hillary Clinton made some sort of corrupt deal with the Devil. They see it as evidence that the game is rigged. But people only become super delegates because they have a longstanding affinity for, and loyalty toward the Democratic Party. Some may be total hacks, but they’re party hacks, and that makes them unlikely candidates to completely rip apart the Democratic coalition for a generation or two, which would be the only possible result of these unelected delegates overturning the will of primary voters. They share a common sense of duty to the best interests of the institution.

It is no doubt true that many of them feel a sense of loyalty to the Clintons. But it doesn’t follow that they’d effectively become political suicide bombers because of that loyalty. They want to beat the Republican nominee in November, and those who hold elected office also want to be re-elected. The worst way to accomplish either goal would be to create a massive scandal within the Democratic Party just months before the election. The super delegates aren’t going to destroy the party from within just because they prefer one candidate over the other.

It’s also true that many of the super delegates who endorsed Clinton did so because they believe that she’s the better candidate for the general election. But that view isn’t set in stone. If the unlikely scenario in which Sanders comes into the convention with more bound delegates but not enough to secure the nomination came to pass, something significant will have happened to shift the nature of the race between now and then. And whatever that something might be, the fact that Sanders was ahead would mean that many of those super delegates would no longer be confident that Hillary is the superior candidate. They’re not crazy. They’re party activists.

One interesting thing about this brouhaha is that it shows how quickly Americans have come to expect that primaries should be decided through a transparent democratic process. The reality is that for around the first 200 years of our history, people took it for granted that party insiders would choose their parties’ nominees, and only expected the general election to be decided by the people.

It was only following the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention that binding primaries and caucuses became a universal feature of our political landscape. The super delegates are a legacy of that shift – after the parties reformed their nomination processes, some felt that they had lost too much control. So in 1982, the Democratic Party adopted a resolution that set aside some delegates for party insiders in order to re-establish the party’s influence over who would become its standard-bearer.

But ultimately, it’s the widespread expectation that the choice of nominee will reflect the will of the voters that makes a super delegate coup so unlikely. They can back whomever they want according to the party’s rules, but it would be a huge violation of the prevailing norms. And that’s why it’s the last thing voters should be worrying about.

[Editor's Note: MoveOn.org has launched a petition to get the super delegates to abide by the popular vote results.]

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