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Why the media shouldn't have declared Hillary Clinton the nominee last night

Hold up! Bernie Sanders has criticized the Associated Press's decision to declare Hillary Clinton the presumptive nominee on Monday night. Does he have a point?
Hold up! Bernie Sanders has criticized the Associated Press's decision to declare Hillary Clinton the presumptive nominee on Monday night. Does he have a point?
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders is down by an essentially insurmountable amount in both the popular vote and the pledged delegate count. As has been the case for weeks, he needs to win by such massive margins on Tuesday to catch Hillary Clinton's pledged delegate lead that it's almost impossible imagine him doing so.

Given that fact, you may have been confused last night when many of Sanders's allies erupted in anger at the Associated Press and NBC News after the two news outlets declared the race officially over.

To those outside the Bernie-verse, this response might look like a community in the grips of a mass delusion: Clinton is clearly and easily winning at the ballot box; the superdelegates are merely ratifying what the public has pretty much decided (they haven't overturned the voters' will since their creation in the 1980s); and the news outlets are recognizing the reality that superdelegates do have a vote that matters at the convention, and that there's no reason to believe they'll change their minds.

Put that all together, and it looks downright bizarre for the AP and NBC News to have not called the race for Clinton last night.

Why, then, did so many Sanders supporters respond to the announcement that Clinton had won with white-hot anger?

Sanders die-hards don't see in the announcement the party leaders unifying around a more popular nominee. Instead, they see more evidence of what they've been arguing all along: that the media has consistently overstated Clinton's lock on the nomination, and in doing so have demoralized potential Sanders supporters and wrongfully influenced the state of the primary.

You can disagree with this interpretation, and many close trackers of the race certainly do. But a look back at the primary shows that it's also impossible to dismiss this complaint as invented out of thin air, or to pretend it merely amounts to the raving mad conspiracy theories of "Bernie Bros" wearing tinfoil hats.

Why Bernie loyalists believe the media created an aura of inevitability that helped Clinton

To understand why Sanders's supporters are so aggrieved by last night's announcement, you have to go back to the earliest days of the Democratic presidential campaign.

Before voting in the primary even began, numerous mainstream press outlets declared Clinton such a prohibitive favorite that there was basically no meaningfully contest and no way she could lose.

  • "Hillary Clinton has nothing to worry about as she prepares for the Iowa caucuses"Bloomberg News, May 2015
  • "Hillary Rodham Clinton is poised to win the Democratic nomination without a serious contest" — Nate Cohn in the New York Times, April 2015
  • "Hillary Clinton is essentially running unopposed for the Democratic Party nomination in 2016" — Matt Yglesias in Vox, April 2015

Sanders, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly dismissed as a fringe candidate. "Kim Kardashian Has a Better Chance of Being President Than Bernie Sanders," said Charles Krauthammer, of the Washington Post, in June 2015.

Media coverage matters

Of course, the dynamics of Sanders's press coverage shifted over the course of the race. And later on, other media pathologies worked to his advantage. The press's interest in sustaining drama around the race arguably led the media to overstate the significance of several state-level Sanders wins down the road, portraying a seesawing race when really Clinton held a fairly steady advantage.

You can also argue, as I have, that the media probably gave Clinton more scrutiny than they gave to Sanders — leading to at least one estimate that she received the most negative coverage of the 2016 primary.

sanders Joshua Lott/Getty Images

But there's no doubt that the media was largely dismissive of Sanders's chances from the beginning of the race, even before the first vote was cast, and in a way that severely underestimated his potential to raise funds, stay in the race, and keep winning states long after earlier insurgent candidates had been forced to close up shop.

Political science about the effect of this kind of coverage is clear, according to Bob Lichter, a George Mason University communications professor and director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs who has done extensive research on the effects of the media on presidential primaries.

"If you are portrayed as not having much of a chance to win, studies show voters tend to pick up on that and echo the opinions of journalists that certain candidates are not worth working for, following, and voting for," Lichter told me in an interview.

This gets to the heart of what Sanders's supporters are so upset about: They think their candidate was never treated as a serious player to begin with, and that this put him at a big disadvantage from the starting gate.

Why Bernie supporters see last night's announcement as an unfair blow to their candidate

This is the context in which we need to understand the anger of Sanders loyalists toward last night's announcement: as validation of their long-held belief that the media pushed Clinton over the finish line before she had actually crossed it herself.

As I explained last night, 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 that vote on Tuesday and the Washington, DC, primary next week. So it does remain a mathematic possibility that Sanders could pull off highly unlikely landslide upsets in nearly all of those states and finish ahead of Clinton in the pledged delegate count.

So he could theoretically still win the pledged delegate count, and could thus theoretically then convince the superdelegates to change their minds at the convention.

Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Boston. Darren McCollester/Getty Images

To Sanders's allies, the decision to declare Clinton the presumptive nominee prematurely banishes that extremely unlikely scenario from the realm of the possible — on the premise that there's no chance the superdelegates would change their minds.

At the end of the day, this will almost certainly prove right. The problem, to Sanders loyalists, is the fact that Sanders faces long odds has been consistently overstated to suggest he faces impossible odds.

As many of those same news outlets later admitted, what once seemed like a sure thing — that Clinton would waltz to the nomination — later proved untrue. So Sanders's allies are primed to be extremely suspicious of media accounts that say Clinton has won the race, and they have reason to believe Sanders at least has a fighting (if highly improbable) chance. That's why they're so mad right now.

Why not just count the superdelegates separately?

Of course, the job of the AP and NBC News isn't to care how people feel about their news coverage; their job is to report the facts as they see them, regardless of whom those facts comfort or anger or prompt to go on an unhinged Twitter rant. And the news outlets, along with many others, see no reason to believe that the superdelegates will reverse course after backing Clinton.

But Sanders's allies, I think, have a compelling response to this: Why not merely count superdelegates and pledged delegate separately? That way, you can say that Clinton is winning the superdelegates who are unlikely to change course, and that she's overwhelmingly likely to also win the pledged delegate count. You can make points without also saying she's definitively won and the race is over.

"For you guys to call it when you don't know what the circumstances are, and those people have not voted yet, it is just simply incorrect," the Young Turks' Cenk Uygur said on CNN last night. "That is not journalism."

Here's the exchange between Uyger, who supports Sanders, and CNN's Brian Stelter:

Stelter: So you’re saying more information is not a good thing? We should hide people from the reality about the superdelegates?

Uyger: No, no, no, no. Brian, this is very important. If you say, "Hey, superdelegates are likely to vote this way," or say they’ll be voting this way, or count them as an aside, that’s totally fair. Count them in the official tally when you know they can and often do switch their votes and have not voted yet — that is simply incorrect.

Many Sandersistas have made much more far-fetched, ludicrous claims that the election was "stolen" or "rigged" through some dastardly widespread electioneering conspiracy. The evidence for this — as Sanders himself has said — is almost exactly none.

But that doesn't make officially declaring the race over before it's actually over the right thing, either.

The comparison to 2008 is highly misleading

Many reporters and Clinton allies have cited the media's decision to declare the race over in 2008 based on the swing of superdelegates as precedent for the AP and NBC News decisions.

From the perspective of Sanders's backers, this is a misleading comparison for several reasons.

The biggest one is that the 2008 announcement came after 57 contests had already been decided and there was no way for Clinton to come back in the pledged delegate count. On June 3, 2008, the media declared Barack Obama the presumptive nominee — but at that point, every state had voted, and the results of the pledged delegate count were mathematically impossible to change. As I've noted, that's not the case this time.

hillary clinton (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Several reporters last night also pointed to a story from 2008 in which Sanders endorsed Obama in his capacity as a superdelegates, implying hypocrisy in Sanders's current stance that superdelegate support shouldn't count now. But they neglected the crucial paragraph in that story — that Sanders also said that he would listen to whatever the outcome of the voting proved.

"Sanders said he held off supporting either of the Democrats [Obama or Clinton] because he has made it a custom not to support any Democrat for the presidential nomination until the party had chosen its nominee," the Burlington Free Press reported.

Where our modern primaries came from