Multiple news outlets declared Hillary Clinton the Democratic Party's presidential nominee on Monday night, saying she has won the majority of delegates necessary to win the race.
"An Associated Press count of pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses and a survey of party insiders known as superdelegates shows Clinton with the overall support of the required 2,383 delegates," the AP said in a short post on its website. "Now the presumptive nominee, she will formally accept her party's nomination in July at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia."
The AP's announcement — confirmed by NBC News a little later — landed seemingly out of nowhere, given that no states voted on Monday and that there had been no news of a recount in any primary.
The key is that the AP's count is based on both the pledged delegates, who are chosen by the voters, and the 712 unelected superdelegates who can support whichever candidate they choose. As Clinton's lock on the nomination has become increasingly obvious, more of these superdelegates have said they will support her, pushing her over the edge needed to win the primary.
This has given some Sanders supporters the false impression that he has lost because of the unelected superdelegates. That's not the case: Sanders is going to lose the primary because he's losing the popular vote and thus the pledged delegate count. The superdelegates are voters in line with the broader electorate.
Still, there's still reason to question whether the AP and NBC News are making the right decision in preemptively declaring the race over based on the superdelegates. By using the superdelegates to declare the race over, these news outlets risk giving greater circulation to the false idea that these party elites have somehow stolen the nomination from Sanders.
Why Bernie Sanders is disputing the AP's call for Hillary Clinton
Almost immediately, Sanders rushed to dispute the AP's announcement, saying that he hadn't lost yet because the superdelegates could change their minds at any point up to the convention.
Sanders responds to @AP call: Clinton doesn't have the pledged delegates. Supers don't count until the convention so it's still on.— Lisa Lerer (@llerer) June 7, 2016
He's technically right about this: It takes 2,383 delegates to win the nomination on the floor, and it takes any combination of pledged and unpledged delegates to get there.
Right now Sanders is losing the pledged delegates by a substantial margin. Clinton has 1,812 pledged delegates (54 percent of those awarded so far) to Sanders's 1,525 delegates, according to Vox's delegate tracker.
There are still roughly 700 pledged delegates left in the remaining states. And so it does remain a mathematic possibility that Sanders could pull off miraculous landslide upsets in nearly all of them and finish ahead of Clinton in the pledged delegate count. But because delegates are allocated proportionally, these would need to be really big landslides — not just "wins" of the state.
In the extraordinarily unlikely event that that came to pass, Sanders would at least have a shot at convincing the superdelegates to follow the will of the voters and give him the nomination.
Again, this isn't going to happen barring some unforeseen massive catastrophe in Clinton's campaign. But you can understand why Sanders, who has been campaigning tirelessly to get as many votes as he can in California, would be furious that the AP is saying he's been literally mathematically eliminated if it's not strictly true.
Hillary Clinton is winning the race because she's winning with the voters. The media is confusing that reality.
This may sound like a semantic argument: Clinton is almost certainly going to win with the pledged delegate count anyway, so why does it matter if she's declared the victor now, with the superdelegates who support her, or later?
The problem is that many Sanders fans have seen the superdelegates as out to get Sanders, thus giving the impression that their undemocratic will is the reason he's losing. And as Bill Scher has argued in Politico, if Sanders's fans see Clinton's nomination as illegitimate, they're less likely to go out and vote for her in the general election in November.
Sanders himself has stoked fears of superdelegates, railing against them as undemocratic elitists who subvert the voters' will while also bizarrely petitioning them to ignore the public and give him the nomination.
But just because Sanders is obfuscating the true nature of the superdelegates doesn't mean the media also needs to.
Sanders is going to lose because he's getting far fewer votes than Clinton. Saying Clinton has won the nomination because of superdelegates thus risks encouraging one of the primary's most dangerous myths — that Clinton is winning simply because of the manipulation of the elites.
That may be music to the ears of Clinton's supporters now. But if she wants Sanders's fans to believe she's the legitimate Democratic nominee, her campaign may want to cite the voters first and foremost in declaring final victory.