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Bernie Sanders’s Hail Mary: maybe superdelegates can save me

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Bernie Sanders has launched withering attacks on the Democratic establishment for months. Now he appears to be asking its most entrenched members to hand him the nomination even if he loses at the ballot box to Hillary Clinton.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times published an interview in which Sanders suggested that superdelegates — the 712 elite party leaders and insiders who can support whichever candidate they want at the Democratic National Convention — should tip the nomination in his favor.

Sanders is being soundly beaten by Clinton among the "pledged" delegates whose support is determined by the popular vote, so turning to superdelegates may be his only option. But it's still a surprising tack to hear him take.

Here's what Sanders told the LA Times:

I would fully concede that we have a narrow path to victory. Your point is well taken. But it is a path. And the only thing that I would add to the arithmetic that we could all agree: Arithmetic is arithmetic, is momentum.

And it is also the fact that many super delegates have not yet declared, that’s number one. Number two, for the super delegates and others who have declared, as I said long ago, the key issue, you know, people like Hillary Clinton more than me. That’s fine. But what people are most concerned of in the world that I live in is that a Republican not get into the White House. I think we can demonstrably make the case, and I say this without one second of hesitation, that I am the stronger candidate.

(Sanders first alluded to a superdelegate strategy last week, but his remarks to the LA Times make those intentions much more explicit.)

Why it's surprising to hear Sanders say superdelegates may be his path forward

There are a number of reasons it's strange to see Sanders turn to the superdelegates to save his candidacy.

The first is that Clinton has had a tremendous advantage among superdelegates since before voting began, and it seems exceedingly unlikely that — barring some unseen event — they'll now suddenly change their minds and back him.

The second reason is that for months leading up to the primary, Sanders's supporters have argued that the superdelegates should be ignored as an undemocratic usurpation of the popular will.

"[The] idea is if you're a super delegate, we want to make sure that you understand that the grassroots base of the Democratic party wants you to support the will of the party electorate," one official, arguing against superdelegates, told Politico after Sanders won New Hampshire.

sanders Joshua Lott/Getty Images

That argument makes sense: The superdelegate system really could be used as an unfair way of taking the primary out of the hands of the voters if they supported a candidate other than the one chosen by the democratic primary process. Sanders's supporters had to hope that if the primary electorate spoke clearly for Sanders, the superdelegates would agree to listen.

But just the opposite has happened. Clinton has received over 2 million more votes than Sanders — she's gotten 8.9 million to his 6.3 million. She has a pledged delegate lead of about 300.

Asking the superdelegates to now overturn that verdict because of a shaky argument about Sanders's general election viability seems like a stretch at best. As MSNBC's Steve Benen notes: "The fact that Sanders and his team are thinking along these lines is itself striking – and the sort of strategy his progressive backers may find difficult to explain after months of making the exact opposite argument."