Bernie Sanders's campaign has seized on a new narrative: The superdelegates will decide the Democratic primary.
"Whoever becomes the nominee, their nomination will depend on getting enough superdelegates," Sanders's aide Jeff Weaver said on Wednesday. "And these are people who are not elected through that process. These are elected officials and Democratic members of Congress and governors and party leaders."
This narrative has gained currency among some Sanders supporters, who have recently published columns in Salon and other blogs saying that the undemocratically chosen elite superdelegates might unfairly cost him the nomination. The pile-ons have also happened on Twitter.
It is impossible for Sanders to win with just pledged delegates—unelected superdelegates will determine the primary https://t.co/hGT8AZK04S— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) May 4, 2016
In a narrow and technical sense, they're right: Hillary Clinton is not going to get enough of the pledged delegates to clinch the nomination outright, so she will need the votes of the superdelegates to push her over the edge for the nomination.
But superdelegates are not the reason Clinton is going to win the nomination. Clinton is going to win the nomination because she is getting many more votes than her rival — and thus winning the pledged delegate total.
There is a theoretical world in which the superdelegates subvert the will of the voters and give Clinton the nomination over the will of the voters. We are not living in that world.
Sanders is losing the nomination because he is losing at the ballot box; for the superdelegates to "decide" the nomination in any meaningful sense, they'd have to ignore the voters and undemocratically hand the nomination to Sanders.
In other words: If all of the superdelegates were eliminated overnight, Bernie Sanders would still be losing the race. Blaming them for his pending defeat isn't just missing the point — it's objectively wrong.
Here's the math on the superdelegates
The confusion arises here because neither candidate is going to have enough of the pledged delegates to get the nomination without superdelegates to put them over the top.
To win the Democratic nomination, a candidate needs a simple majority of 2,383 delegates (pledged or superdelegates) at the convention floor.
About 85 percent of the convention's delegates are chosen by the voters, and about 15 percent are superdelegates. So it takes a pretty huge pledged delegate margin of victory — a win of 59 to 41 percent — to take the nomination outright. Otherwise, the superdelegates have to push someone over the finish line.
This is what happened in 2008. Barack Obama did not take enough of the pledged delegates to win the nomination alone. But because Obama had narrowly beaten Clinton among the pledged delegates, the superdelegates followed the will of the voters — and gave him the nomination.
You could look at that and say that Obama won "because of" the superdelegates. And in the most literal sense possible, it'd be true. But, again, superdelegates did not make Obama the nominee — the voters did.
The same dynamic is now playing out with Clinton and Sanders in 2016.
Among the delegates chosen by the voters, Clinton has 1,703 and Sanders has 1,415. She looks exceedingly likely to win the pledged delegate count by much more than Obama did in 2008. (Obama won the pledged delegate total in 2008 by a 1,766.5 to 1,639.5 margin, according to RealClearPolitics, though I'm not sure what 0.5 of a delegate is.)
Theoretically, Sanders could still catch up with Clinton in the pledged delegate count. To do that, he'd have to win 65 percent of the delegates in every remaining state, according to the Washington Post. And for that to happen, he'd have to win every state remaining by more than he's won anywhere so far except for his home state of Vermont.
If that somehow came to pass, then we could start complaining about the role of superdelegates in screwing Sanders. But that's not what's happening.
And if superdelegates didn't exist, if the Democratic Party did away with them at this year's convention, Hillary Clinton would still have a majority of the remaining delegates.
Sanders's team and the media are making this much more confusing than it has to be
The frustrating part about this discussion is that Sanders's team and supporters have good reason to think the superdelegate system can be incredibly unfair.
The superdelegates are made up of party loyalists and elite insiders who don't really earn their positions. At a fundamental level, this violates our basic idea of how we should pick our presidential nominees.
Sanders and his team could criticize the superdelegates and acknowledge that he'll need the pledged delegate count to win. Instead, they've muddled the picture by repeatedly insisting that the superdelegates will determine the race — perhaps ironically, by tossing the Hail Mary that the superdelegates should pick him over the voters because of his general election polling numbers.
This may be just a way for Sanders to argue that he has a path for the nomination and a reason for staying in the race. But the practical effect of the appeal has been to make many Sanders supporters think that the superdelegates are going to determine the nomination, a result that — if true — they'd rightly regard as unfair.
On the one hand, the decision to include the superdelegates in these race trackers makes sense: They have overwhelmingly backed Clinton, their votes will matter at the convention, and they really do suggest a potential firewall of sorts for Clinton.
But from the perspective of a Sanders fan, this just makes understanding the state of the race more confusing, by again raising the question: Is Sanders losing in part because the superdelegates don't like him?
It would be much easier — and, for Sanders's supporters, much clearer — if the press instead simply counted pledged delegates alone, and noted that the superdelegates could swing their support after voting ends in June.
Sanders's supporters are primed — sometimes with good reason — to think the Democratic Party establishment has been out to get them since day one of the campaign. Giving them a reason to doubt the legitimacy of the primary does not seem like a good way to bring the party together for the general election.