If you were worried that the media wouldn’t be creating a baseless controversy around Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign this week, worry no more. This week’s narrative centers around how Sanders is somehow wrong to be unhappy with the so-called “superdelegates”.
The truth of the matter, however, is that the Sanders campaign is right to challenge the superdelegates on their early commitment to Hillary Clinton. The Democratic Party itself has admitted that superdelegates do not have the right to contravene the will of the voters, and have tried to limit their influence. Nonetheless, it is clear that the superdelegates, party elites who suffer from a clear conflict of interest, have already had an unfair and undue influence in this Primary. Both Sanders, and the voting public, should hold them to task.
What Are Superdelegates?
Superdelegates are Democratic party elites who are seated automatically at the Democratic National Convention and can vote for whichever candidate they choose. Superdelegates are generally members of the House and Senate and distinguished leaders within the Democratic Party in each state. The votes of superdelegates — who can be courted with promises, hotel rooms, and invitations to campaign events — can essentially be purchased by nominees.
Why do Superdelegates Exist?
Unclear. The stated reasons vary, but the reality is that superdelegates exist so that party elites can help to control and influence who wins the nomination. Although, make no mistake about it, in certain cases, direct democracy does carry with it some real risks (ask the Republicans if they wish they had superdelegates to stop Trump right now).
After the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party created a commission, called the McGovern-Fraser Commission, for the purposes of making recommendations to broaden participation and enable better representation within the Party. McGovern-Fraser established open procedures, abolished private/secret nominations of delegates, and and recommended that delegates be represented by the proportion of their population in each state.
These reforms were not without their critics, with some saying that the reforms “created ‘too much’ democracy, or a badly conceived democracy, leaving too much of the nominations decision up to an allegedly uninformed, unrepresented, and/or uninterested electorate.” Party elites wanted their power back, and they got it thanks to the 1982 Hunt Commission.
The Hunt Commission recommended that 30% of the vote be given to the party elite, party leaders and elected officials. This moment in history was as good a time as ever for them to make that move, as the Democrats and George McGovern had gotten trounced in the 1972 Presidential Election (winning only one state). Both McGovern, and Jimmy Carter who followed, were “grassroots” candidates adored by Democratic voters but who lacked broader appeal and performed poorly in general elections.
But as they say, tough cases make bad law.
After 2008, the Democratic Party Reduced Superdelegate Influence
In 2009, the Democratic Party took another look at the nominating process and recommended that the number of unpledged delegates be reduced once again. This report, called the Democratic Change Commission, said that superdelegates had too much power in the process and found that candidates had to spend too much time and resources seeking their support. They recommended a “significant reduction” in the number from the 19% of overall delegates they comprised in 2008.
“Openness, fairness, and accessibility are central to our ideals as Democrats, and the Commission’s recommendations to reform the delegate selection process will ensure that voters’ voices and preferences are paramount to our process of nominating a Presidential candidate.” – DNC Chairman Tim Kaine.
The Change Commission failed, only able to reduce the number from 19% to 14.95%, a figure still high enough to turn a nomination “in contravention of the wishes of our voters and caucus goers.” Under the current system, a candidate could win the Democratic nomination with just 41% of the pledged delegates.
How Have Superdelegates Affected the 2016 Primary?
The existing superdelegate tally has done serious optical damage to the Sanders campaign. Clinton’s current lead over Sanders in pledged delegates — delegates determined by the American public in primaries and caucuses — is only around ~230, or about 10% of the pledged delegates earned so far. However, once superdelegates are added to that total, she leads by a commanding 1,756 to 1,068. Clinton has won a whopping 94% of the superdelegates who have declared their support.
You can see the injustice of the superdelegate process if you look at the outcomes in individual states:
States that Sanders won big have become ties (Colorado), or close to it (Minnesota). States that were close became blowouts for Clinton (Iowa, Missouri). Even states which Sanders won outright have become losses (Wyoming, Michigan). Sanders won Washington by a whopping 72.7% to 27.1%, but ten of ten pledged Superdelegates are going to Clinton.
Thanks to these Superdelegates, Bernie Sanders of winning the Democratic nomination are near zero, so in order for there to be a path to victory for Sanders, Superdelegates must be part of the plan.
Why Have Superdelegates Committed Early to Clinton?
New York has the second-most delegates in the Democratic Primary, but Bernie Sanders is already losing 40-0 before a single vote is cast. He’s down 47-0 in California.
The truth is, the impact of the superdelegates started being felt long before the Primaries began. Here is a look at the superdelegate race before the voters went to the polls in Iowa on February 1st:
Almost 100 superdelegates pledged to Clinton one year before the first Primary, even before she even announced her candidacy. About 350 superdelegates were pledged to Clinton before the second Democratic Debate took place on November 14, 2015. Clinton was 15% of the way toward the nomination before a single vote was cast.
Why did so many Superdelegates come out for Hillary in 2015, when they do not have to declare a preference until the Convention? I’ll allow the Daily Kos to explain one of the potential reasons:
In August 2015, at the Democratic Party convention in Minneapolis, 33 democratic state parties made deals with the Hillary Clinton campaign and a joint fundraising entity called The Hillary Victory Fund … The fund is administered by treasurer Elizabeth Jones, the Clinton Campaign’s chief operating officer. Ms. Jones has the exclusive right to decide when transfers of money to and from the Hillary Victory Fund would be made to the state parties.
After losing to President Obama in 2008, Clinton hired Obama’s “superdelegate strategy architect” in order to make the system work for her. Clinton has the most money, the most experience, and the most powerful infrastructure, making her victory as the Democratic nominee for President a fait accompli.
Now, to be clear, this is not a criticism of Clinton for playing within the rules. However, one must understand — like the McGovern-Fraser Commission and Democratic Change Commission did — that allowing party elites to have huge influence in the party’s nominating process will create an obvious conflict of interest whereby the superdelegates would cozy-up with the most powerful, presumptive nominee.
If you are a Democratic party leader or member of Congress, who would you rather be able to say you supported when President Clinton is sworn in on January 20, 2017?
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In Part 2, we will show that Bernie Sanders is no McGovern — he is a candidate who is popular and well-liked across the spectrum of voters and who would win the General Election. As such, the superdelegates must not be permitted to tilt the outcome of the Democratic Primary.