As I've previously noted on these pages, the Democratic Party's tradition of permitting party elites to be "superdelegates" in their presidential primary process is a bad and undemocratic practice that should be thrown in the ashcan. After the superdelegates became a flashpoint for controversy and interparty animosity in 2008, the Democratic Party contemplated doing just that, but in the end declined to dismantle this scheme. And so it's hardly surprising that now that the 2016 nomination race has become a compelling competition between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the superdelegate fiasco has returned anew.
As you probably already know, there are 712 superdelegates, each of whom gets to cast a "vote" in the primary process that shows up in the overall delegate count, along with those delegates who are claimed according to the ballots cast in the states' primaries and caucuses. Many of these 712 superdelegates are Democratic party poohbahs and DNC elites, but the lion's share of the supers are simply elected officials -- members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Others are tied to specific states by virtue of their functions within the Democratic Party.
Bernie Sanders currently lags well behind Hillary Clinton in the race to claim superdelegates, a situation that has added to her advantage in the overall race to reach the magic number of delegates to claim the nomination. In recent weeks, Sanders supporters have started to make the case that the superdelegates who represent voters in states where Sanders has prevailed over Clinton should align their support with the way their constituents voted. At first blush, it's a compelling argument. If superdelegates were to do so, it might limit Clinton's advantage. (It would perhaps make life awkward for Sanders superdelegate Rep. Raul Grijalva [D-Ariz.], as Clinton won Arizona with 57.6 percent of the vote in that state's primary.)
Earlier this week, it was reported that a Sanders supporter from Eagle River, Alaska, named Levi Younger took to Facebook to challenge one of his state's superdelegates -- Alaska Democratic party national committeewoman Kim Metcalfe -- to follow the will of Alaskans who voted for Sanders in a blowout win in the Alaska caucus. Metcalfe responded, at times impertinently, and Younger leaked the conversation.
U.S. Uncut's Tom Cahill has documented the full blow-by-blow here. The essential part of the conversation, however, begins with Metcalfe supplying her reasoning for supporting Clinton in the face of the Alaska caucus results:
METCALFE: Because I believe Hillary Clinton would be a better president. End of conversation.
YOUNGER: And that’s why people get angry. Bernie supporters can be quite vapid. But voting in opposition to what we voted for is only supporting the idea that Hillary and her supporting super delegates are in the pockets of others. Bernie won in Alaska. End of story. Your personal preferences for president are represented in your vote as a citizen. Not as a representative of your state.
Metcalfe would go on to push back on Younger's claim: "I’m in the pocket of no one. I have no financial connections to Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat. I am a retired union representative. I put in my time in the trenches for 40 years, and I really object to someone like you who has probably done nothing except caucus telling me what to do. I am voting for the best interests of my country. And that would be Hillary Clinton."
I can't speak to whether Metcalfe is being disingenuous here, but for the sake of argument, I'm going to assume that she came to her decision with the same honest agency as the aforementioned Grijalva. I'll do that for two reasons: first, because this is part of my brief against superdelegates -- the system itself gives rise to suspicion (and that suspicion is perhaps warranted).
But more importantly, when Metcalfe is using her agency to offer her superdelegate support against the will of her state's voters, she is doing precisely what the Democratic Party intended the superdelegates to do. Here's DNC Rules Committee co-chair James Roosevelt Jr. explaining in 2010 why the DNC opted to retain the superdelegates (emphasis mine):
“People ask: isn’t it enough for folks to have floor privileges and a hotel room and not have an actual vote?” says rules-committee co-chair James Roosevelt Jr., a grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “The answer is: what you’re doing is creating two classes of delegates, people with the vote and people without the vote. Clearly, the people at the grassroots level should be the predominant voice. But if you don’t give elected officials a real voice, they are basically second-class citizens.”
This is how the Democratic Party conceives of the superdelegates -- they would be "second-class citizens" if they did not have this ability to have a voice equal to "people at the grassroots level," and potentially break against them. I am not personally endorsing any of this (it's ridiculous), I'm merely pointing out that this is the world as it is.
The truth of the matter is that many of the superdelegates actually prefer to use their special powers to do precisely what Levi Younger and others would prefer them to do -- support a candidate in concert with the consensus of primary voters. As Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) put it in 2008, many superdelegates are simply guided by "timing...preferring to make their decision public after the primaries are over." McCaskill went on to make clear that exposure to this sort of controversy is something that many superdelegates would prefer to avoid: "They would like someone else [i.e. the primary voters] to act for them before they talk about it in the cold light of day."
Of course, the fact that many superdelegates might be happy to break in support of the voters' will at the last second does not -- at the moment -- help Sanders either. Unless he starts winning more primary contests by larger margins, he'll be caught between the actions of the bold superdelegates and the reticence of the timid superdelegates.
It's worth pointing out that Sanders could do a lot more to help the cause of persuading superdelegates than he is currently doing. One of the traditional responsibilities of a presidential nominee is to be a party standard-bearer, and to lend all manner of support to the party's efforts in downticket races. This includes such things as helping to organize the party's efforts, lending legislators' campaigns support in the form of voter data and fundraising, and openly campaigning in important districts alongside others who are up for election.
The Clinton campaign has long made it clear that they were going to make a massive effort to lend this kind of support to downticket organizing and party-building. Sanders, not so much. As recently as this week, when asked about whether he'd provide support to other Democrats and put his fearsome small-dollar fundraising machine to the service of winning legislative elections, Sanders demurred, saying, "We'll see."
So, imagine if you are a Democratic Party superdelegate and there's one candidate who's laid out a plan to provide this sort of support and one who is, for some reason, withholding it. Who are you likely to back? The campaign that's had "joint fundraising agreements with 33 state Democratic parties" in place since September of last year, or the campaign that's saying, "I don't know, we'll see about whether or not that's something we do."
Of course, this is about far more than simply forming a mutual backscratching society. If Bernie Sanders harbors any hope for successfully implementing even some of his agenda, he will need -- at a minimum! -- Congressional majorities to pull it off. This is the sort of thing that needs to be a central concern of his campaign, not an afterthought.
None of this makes the superdelegate super-structure a worthy thing to continue, but for this primary season, it will remain in place. So if he wants superdelegates to support him, he needs to come up with some answers.
Over the course of many months, the Sanders campaign and his supporters have shifted from critiquing the superdelegates as a semi-corrupt and elitist practice, to mounting a belated charm-slash-aggro offensive to cajole their support. Sanders and his supporters were right in the first place! Alas, now they need to win a primary.
Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast "So, That Happened." Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.