There Is A Hole In Bernie Sanders' Strategy For Winning The Nomination

Just how democratic should the Democratic primary be?
Scott Morgan / Reuters

Sen. Bernie Sanders' revamped plan for winning the Democratic presidential nomination suffers from an inconsistency that could complicate the case he makes to party insiders and allied groups.

The Vermont independent laid out the admittedly difficult path he plans to follow for the remainder of the primary season in a National Press Club address on Sunday. In many ways, it was a more forceful iteration of a proposal his campaign had offered several weeks ago: By doing well in upcoming primaries, he will close the gap in pledged delegates with Hillary Clinton, so much so that neither of them will have the necessary numbers to win the nomination outright without the help of the so-called superdelegates. At that point, Sanders will encourage those superdelegates -- party insiders who also have a say in who becomes the nominee -- to back him on the basis that he would be the stronger candidate in the fall election.

On Sunday, Sanders was more explicit about his view of the role that superdelegates need to play, arguing that those from states in which he had already beaten Clinton handedly had an obligation to switch their support to him now.

"If I win a state with 70 percent of the votes, you know what? I think I'm entitled to those superdelegates," he said.

The word "entitled" is what complicates Sanders' case.

“If I win a state with 70 percent of the votes, you know what? I think I'm entitled to those superdelegates.”

- Sen. Bernie Sanders

At the same time he was arguing that superdelegates should reflect the will of the primary voters in their states, he continued to make the case that superdelegates did not need to reflect the will of the voters nationally. After the press conference was over, in fact, the Sanders campaign refused to agree that Clinton is "entitled" to a share of superdelegates proportional to her margin of victory nationally.

"I think we are saying that it is very important," Sanders' top strategist, Tad Devine, said of the overall primary results. "But I also think we have to take into consideration things beyond that."

Sanders' campaign has to make this argument. Right now, Clinton has commitments from an estimated 520 superdelegates to Sanders' 39. And even if superdelegates were obligated to back candidates at the convention based on the results in their states, he'd likely lose since Clinton will have won more states. (Neither candidate will likely win the nomination without the help of superdelegates.)

Sanders has a difficult pitch to make to superdelegates.
Sanders has a difficult pitch to make to superdelegates.
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

But even prior to Sanders' address, there was evidence that some of his boosters felt uncomfortable with the superdelegate strategy., for example, continues to stand by its preference that the superdelegates reflect the will of the voters nationally.

Devine, in a brief press gaggle, rejected the notion that the senator was essentially applying two standards for superdelegates: democratically distributed in states where candidates scored big wins (the threshold for a big win wasn't stated), but not democratically distributed when all the voting is done.

First, Devine made the case that the popular vote in the nominating process was a faulty metric, owing to the different formats (primaries or caucuses) and rules (open or closed primaries) from state to state.

"When you say I've won X number of popular votes and your opponent has done stunningly well in contests which are different in nature than the ones where you racked up the popular vote advantage, I would submit that that's somewhat less than a completely objective standard," said Devine. "That number as a barometer of measuring support is weighted to one side and not the other. It is not a fair thing. And we should take that into consideration."

On this front, Devine noted that some of the caucuses still hadn't posted their final vote tallies, making it truly impossible to know just how big a popular vote lead Sanders had to overcome.

“Let's suppose that in the next six weeks, Bernie Sanders goes on a tear like he has gone on before. ... Should we then say the only benchmark is who has got more pledged delegates?”

- Tad Devine, Sanders' top strategist

But in terms of pledged delegates, the race is not as muddled. Clinton currently has 1,645 of those to Sanders' 1,318. The senator would have to win roughly 65 percent of the remaining vote just to catch up with her by the final contest.

No one on the Sanders campaign is pollyannaish about the size of that task. They aren't fully ruling out a victory, but optimistically they believe he can be just "dozens" of pledged delegates short of Clinton when all the voting is done.

Here, again, the case to the superdelegates relies on some crafty salesmanship. Having previously argued that these officials need to reflect the results of their states, the Sanders campaign would, on the eve of the convention, make the case that the momentum and trajectory of the race should be overriding considerations.

"Let's suppose that in the next six weeks, Bernie Sanders goes on a tear like he has gone on before. And let's suppose in the 10 states and the four other contests that are out there, he wins the vast majority of them -- he wins California by a huge margin, he racks up an impressive set of victories," said Devine. "Should we then say the only benchmark is who has got more pledged delegates? Shouldn't those superdelegates take into consideration a totality of the circumstances?"

Asked if he believed that later contests were more important than earlier ones, Devine didn't flinch.

"I think they are," he said, "You know why? Because they are closer to November, that's why, you know. And what happened a year ago is not as important as what's going to happen in June of this year."

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