Here Comes Another Superdelegate Crisis

Your least favorite thing about the 2008 Democratic primary is back!
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will face superdelegates in their fight for the nomination.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will face superdelegates in their fight for the nomination.
Jim Cole/Associated Press

Shortly after the New Hampshire primaries concluded, a great confusion arose among those who don't have several hundred hours of free time to study the Byzantine way we decide presidential nominees. That confusion coalesced into a single question: Why, if Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton decisively in the Granite State's primary, was the delegate count coming out of the state so close? Well, prepare to be reminded of an electoral bugaboo from yesteryear, with this concise explanation from Ben Kamisar at The Hill:

Sanders won 15 delegates with his 20-point victory Tuesday while Clinton won nine.

But Clinton came into the contest with the support of six superdelegates, who are state party insiders given the freedom to support any candidate they choose.

Ah, yes, welcome back, Democratic superdelegates! Time to make some space for you and all your bad memories.

So, here's basically the back-of-the-cereal-box story of how the Democratic primary works. To be the nominee in 2016, you have to amass a total of 2,382 delegates during the primary season. Most of this haul will come from successfully competing in the states' various primaries and caucuses. Some states -- like these early ones we've seen -- apportion the delegates according to the vote. In these instances, the losers take home some consolation delegates to add to their pile. In many of the later states, however, the delegates are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. So as the primary process proceeds, the stakes tend to accelerate.

(I'm really underplaying the complexity of the process here. If you want to get deeper into the weeds, head out to The Green Papers and start undertaking your graduate-level study of this process.)

Now set all of the primary process aside and focus on another source from which the candidates can add to their delegate totals: the superdelegates. Democratic Party superdelegates are basically elected officials, Democratic National Committee members and a posse of party swells that are now considered distinguished Democratic Party pooh-bahs, and they all get a vote in this process.

There are, right now, 712 of them. Many are, as of this moment, tentatively committed to a candidate. The Associated Press' reporting calculates that Clinton currently has 361 superdelegates committed to her as of Jan. 30, and Sanders has ... eight. So, Clinton has a massive advantage here.

But this advantage comes with problems. Many superdelegates prefer to fly under the radar, properly recognizing that it would be a really bad look if a bunch of affluent party elites became the means by which a primary was decided. Some of these superdelegates, of course, are influential Democratic legislators whose endorsements are sought by the candidates. When Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), for example, backed Sanders, this was an important moment of the so-called "invisible primary," in which an influential liberal congressman signalled his choice to other liberals. Grijalva is a superdelegate as well, though, so count him among Sanders' eight in the tally.

But the ideal situation for many superdelegates is for them to merely use their vote as a ceremonial affirmation of the voters' consensus. That's why hundreds of them are currently biding their time, not picking anyone. Many superdelegates are in it for the perks -- a hotel room at the convention, a place amid the pageantry on the floor -- and would rather not see their potentially decisive power being used to decide a nominee.

This sentiment was well expressed by Missouri Democratic Sen. (and superdelegate) Claire McCaskill back in April of 2008:

"The majority of superdelegates I’ve talked to are committed, but it is a matter of timing,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “They’re just preferring to make their decision public after the primaries are over. ... They would like someone else to act for them before they talk about it in the cold light of day.”

And back in the spring of 2008, the way the race had shaped up had placed a lot of undue attention on the superdelegates and their role in the process. There came a moment in the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama when Clinton's mathematical path to notching the nomination didn't make sense unless a lot of superdelegates started breaking her way.

And it wasn't just the raw arithmetic that mattered. She needed momentum as well, because she was locked in a situation where she had to start winning primaries by decisive margins that hadn't yet manifested themselves. Getting party elites to come out for her -- against the run of play -- was necessary to add a dose of energy to facilitate this outcome.

So Clinton got to the point where she had to start publicly and flamboyantly courting the superdelegates. (Obama, rest assured, was doing the same in a more publicly restrained way.) And many of those superdelegates properly recognized that their lives might get dicey if, after the voters demonstrated a clear desire to nominate their party's first black candidate, some affluent Beltway toff threw the election in a different direction. (Around the same time, the Clinton campaign was also seeking to have the full delegate slate from a pair of states fully credentialed after the party punished them for various primary calendar shenanigans, a much better case for a nominal leader of the "party of the little guy" to be making.)

In short, there was a time where the word "superdelegate" connoted a deep, deep dysfunction within the Democratic Party and an intergalactic electoral controversy. Given the fact that the 2008 cycle exposed that the superdelegates could, in the wrong situation, prove to be an undemocratic passel of votes that could supersede the will of primary voters, it shouldn't be a surprise that the Democratic Party pondered doing away with them altogether. So in August of 2010, the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee met to ponder the matter.

As Newsweek's Colin Woodard reported at the time, here's how that went:

But the rules committee took a dim view of this proposal. While endorsing recommendations to dilute the superdelegates’ influence (mostly by increasing the number of ordinary delegates), it quietly nixed the redefinition of their voting powers at it July 10 meeting. How quietly? Enough that even some members of the change commission hadn’t yet heard about it when NEWSWEEK spoke to them last week.

The end result of all of this was that the influence of superdelegates in the process was slightly reduced, by limiting their overall proportion in the total number of delegates available to all candidates to 15 percent (down from 20 percent).

Why not more? Let's have a beneficiary of nepotism explain it to Newsweek, because that's almost too perfect:

“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.”

Sure. Wouldn't want a group of privileged elites to feel like they're second class to primary voters. That almost makes too much sense.

Now it's 2016, and the situation has changed considerably. This time, Clinton enjoys a substantial lead over Sanders in the race to win superdelegates. This is, on one important level, very understandable: Sanders is not a Democrat. He's an independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats, but he doesn't play a huge role in building the party and, in fact, his whole campaign is predicated on tearing out the existing party apparatus and replacing it with something new.

So, all things being equal, his claim on the superdelegates is very tenuous. But when you start blowing out Clinton in primaries, guess what? All things cease being equal in a hurry. NBC News' First Read Team does a fine job distilling the situation at hand:

Overall, according to the AP's count, Clinton has endorsements from more than 360 Democratic superdelegates, versus eight for Sanders. According to our back-of-envelope math, that means that Sanders must win 54% of the remaining delegates to get to the magic number of 2,382 delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination, while Clinton needs to win just 46%. That is a HUGE advantage, especially when you consider that the 2008 Democratic delegate race between Barack Obama and Clinton was essentially a 52%-48% affair.

It is a "huge advantage" ... on paper. But if we think this through to the end, what happens if Sanders wins a majority of the remaining delegates that are at stake in contests where Democrats actually vote, and misses the nomination because Clinton closed and surmounted the gap through the votes wrangled from party elites? It probably leaves everyone involved in a crisis, with a sizable portion of the electorate left feeling disaffected by the primary process. In this hypothetical circumstance, how does Clinton win those voters back to her side for the general election?

It may not happen that way, of course. As previously mentioned, many superdelegates are happy to simply affirm the consensus and move on with their lives. As the First Read Team notes, "If Sanders does win a majority of the bound delegates, there will be ENORMOUS pressure on the supers to back him. And that pressure could likely lead to many elected supers -- perhaps worried about a future Dem primary -- to suddenly get cold feet on Clinton and simply promise to support the Dem who wins their district or state."

That is, indeed, the likely outcome. Still, this is a sleeping dog that Clinton ought to leave snoozing for the foreseeable future. But that's not what's happening. As ABC News' Rick Klein reports, "Clinton campaign aides are touting" her currently substantial superdelegate lead "at least implicitly, in arguing to supporters and donors that the delegate math is overwhelmingly in her favor."

Klein continues:

That, though, makes a few dangerous assumptions. First, it presumes that if superdelegates matter, they would openly deny the nomination to someone who won more delegates via actual voting. (Remember 2008, anyone?) Second, and more urgently, it presumes that Sanders supporters won’t wake up to this possibility and use it as motivation. A line about how the establishment is trying to subvert the judgment of the people could slip rather easily into a Sanders stump speech.

But the bigger problem for Clinton is simply the fact that this isn't how this primary was supposed to go! It was never, ever supposed to come down to knotty delegate math and enumerating the vote splits on a state-by-state spreadsheet -- let alone give rise to a situation where she'd be dependent on a superdelegate bailout. And yet, after two contests -- both of which offered Sanders some bank-shot advantages that don't exist elsewhere -- Clinton's team is revealing a deep concern for the road ahead.

Nevertheless, pointing to the way those Democratic Party elites who enjoy voting privileges favor her over Sanders is not a move her campaign advisers should even be countenancing at this point. The basic argument of her candidacy is that the institutions that govern our lives do not need to be torn down, root and branch. Clinton's case is that competent management of existing institutions will help level the playing field. For this reason, she shouldn't be telling voters that the system isn't really rigged against them while simultaneously telling her donors, "Don't worry, the Democratic primary is rigged in my favor."

But for whatever reason, that's where we are right now, and once again, superdelegates are stuck in the spotlight. The Democrats should have just scuttled the superdelegates when they had the opportunity. Alas!

Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast, "So, That Happened." Subscribe here. Listen to the latest episode below.

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