Clinton and the DNC Are Not Just Colluding -- They're Changing the Rules for Superdelegates

The award for most deliberate and egregious burying of a lead has just been handed out. It goes to NBC News, for a story entitled, "Bernie Sanders Makes Things Awkward for Hillary Clinton's DNC Takeover."
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The award for most deliberate and egregious burying of a lead has just been handed out.

It goes to NBC News, for a story entitled, "Bernie Sanders Makes Things Awkward for Hillary Clinton's DNC Takeover."

Put aside for a moment that the story's central premise is the uncritical repetition of a nonsense: the idea that a major-party convention can't -- as in literally cannot be -- planned without a nominee being declared at least a month and a half in advance. We know that's untrue because, up until a week ago, that's exactly what the GOP was (with minimal public grousing by RNC Chair Reince Priebus) planning to do.

More importantly, in the context of Democratic National Committee rules -- which, as DNC officials Luis Miranda and Debbie Wasserman Schultz have both explained to the media repeatedly, dictate that super-delegates cannot be tallied until July -- there can be no doubt about which sentence in the above-cited NBC News story is the most important. It's this one, about what the Clinton campaign and the DNC have been up to since April (more than three months prior to the Party's late-July convention):

Back-channel conversations have already begun between Clinton's campaign and the DNC about what role the party will play in the general election. These discussions are happening out of sight for now to avoid the appearance of collusion before the party has formally selected a nominee.

Where does this information appear in the article? In the very last sentence, of course.

That's the spot in a hard-news article reserved for (assuming there's no "kicker") the least important piece of information in the article.

Or it would be, had not some editor at NBC News switched the rules around.

That's something that's becoming not just a trend in, but a cancer upon, the 2016 presidential election, so let's go back in time to find the root of the problem. If you can, cast your mind all the way back to February 19th -- less than 90 days ago. On February 19th, only two states -- Iowa and New Hampshire -- had held primary votes for the Democratic presidential nomination. The results in Iowa (a tie) and New Hampshire (a landslide victory for Bernie Sanders) had at that point made Sanders the front-runner for the nomination.

Sanders was the leader in the popular vote.

Sanders was the early leader in the all-important pledged-delegate count.

And here's where the super-delegate count stood on February 19th:

  • Hillary Clinton: 451
  • Bernie Sanders: 19

Now it's May, and we're being told that the sole purpose of the Democratic "super-delegate" has all along been to acknowledge the popular-vote and pledged-delegate leader.

Except that's nonsense.

Hillary Clinton courted hundreds and hundreds of super-delegates at a time when there was no popular-vote or delegate-count leader, and in 2016, as in 2008, she worked hard to keep her super-delegates even in those times she was neither the leader in the popular vote nor the leader in the delegate count.

The reason for this is that super-delegates have absolutely nothing to do with the popular vote or the delegate count.

And Clinton knows it.

Moreover, plenty of super-delegates -- most notably former DNC Chair and Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean -- have said it loud and clear. Super-delegates are tasked with (a) declaring themselves as early as possible in order to scare from the Democratic primary anyone who hasn't sufficiently greased the wheels of the Democratic Party machine, and (b) casting their vote at the Party's summer convention for whichever candidate is best positioned to win the general election. Incidentally, these are both great reasons to abolish super-delegates -- as the State of Maine just did, in effect, by forcing their super-delegates to vote along popular-vote lines -- but they're the reality of what super-delegates are (and mean) right now.

So Bernie Sanders saying that he plans to go to the Party's summer convention and argue that he's best positioned to win the general election is the veritable dictionary definition of "playing by the rules." Meanwhile, Clinton and her camp suddenly discovering some unstated principle about the connection between super-delegates and the popular vote, or super-delegates and the pledged-delegate count, is pretty rich -- given that Clinton picked up 86 percent of her super-delegates (451 of 523) at a time when she was well behind in both measures. Calling Clinton a hypocrite on the issue of super-delegates would be unkind; it would be more accurate to say that, on the subject of super-delegates, as on so many other subjects, there is no evidence that Clinton has any core principles whatsoever.

While the media can give Clinton a pass on waffling about super-delegates -- and they have, in fact entirely -- what it cannot do is claim that Sanders' position is the unprincipled and inconsistent one. Not only has Sanders not changed his unfavorable view of super-delegates, his position on super-delegates tracks with how the Party itself treats these individuals: as people who, per Luis Miranda and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, cannot and do not vote, and therefore cannot and must not be tallied, prior to the Party's convention in Philadelphia this July.

So, to recap: the DNC has told the media that super-delegates can't and don't get tallied for purposes of declaring a nominee until July; Sanders has taken the same view; yet the DNC has since April, we now learn, been working with the Clinton camp behind the scenes to have the Democratic primary declared over on June 7th.

And we have every expectation that the media -- despite this video -- will comply.

So, to recap: Clinton approached hundreds and hundreds of super-delegates in 2015, before any American had voted or any candidate taken a popular-vote or pledged-delegate lead, and asked for their endorsement on the basis of super-delegates being tasked with supporting the Party's strongest candidate; Sanders has accepted that view of super-delegates' role; Clinton, now leading by a large margin among super-delegates and pledged delegates alike, has suddenly changed her view to the "principled" position that super-delegates must support whoever wins the popular vote and the pledged-delegate count; the media has treated Clinton's about-face as honorable and Sanders' consistent position as a betrayal of his core principles.

So, to recap: the traditional mechanism for assessing which primary candidate has the best chance to win in the fall is general-election polling, which research tells us hits an "accuracy spike" in April, at which point it's about as accurate as August polling; Bernie Sanders led Trump by more nationally and in every battleground state in April polling; the media and the Clinton campaign spent April talking about how general-election polling has no value; now that Clinton seems almost certain to be the Democratic nominee, both the media and the Clinton camp have suddenly declared spring polling inviolably predictive and reliable.

So, to recap: the media has consistently reported on Hillary Clinton's efforts to reach out to Sanders voters; the media is unable to provide any example of this happening other than Clinton gamely refusing to call for her opponent's concession a month earlier than she conceded in 2008; Clinton's camp in fact said it planned to "disqualify" Sanders from the presidency, that his campaign was "destructive", that he could go "fuck himself", and that its most likely VP nominee was a moderate with no ties to the progressive movement whatsoever.

Quite the olive branch.

I've been covering presidential elections for the past four election cycles, and the media coverage for this particular cycle has been so uniformly disgraceful that we can reasonably expect this -- in conjunction with Hillary Clinton lately running one of the smuggest, most tone-deaf, and least transparent campaigns in postwar American politics -- will lead to one of the lowest November turnouts in recent memory.

Barring a Sanders concession -- which the candidate has assured the nation is not forthcoming -- if the national media and the Clinton campaign declare victory at any time prior to the July convention, it will not only be a contravention of the rules laid out for the media and the Democratic Party by the DNC but such a dramatic dereliction of journalistic principles that both the Democrats and indeed the nation will deserve whatever they get come November. The media has been slapping progressives in the face for a year now; and the Clinton campaign has gleefully joined in over the last few months; so when young, working-class, and progressive Americans stay home in November, don't you dare turn around and blame it on us.

Seth Abramson is the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University) and the author, most recently, of DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).

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