About Them Superdelegates…

So, Bernie Sanders did pretty well in Iowa. He didn’t get the clear win he and a lot of his supporters were hoping for and believed was possible, but he still did well enough that everyone has to sit up and take him seriously now. Especially given that he’s probably going to clean house in New Hampshire. A lot of people are saying that the tide is turning in his direction so swiftly that he has a real shot at winning the nomination. If he can just eek out a win on Super Tuesday…

This post is a bit of cold water for those people.

Bernie Sanders is still playing with a massive handicap: the Democratic Party Establishment ™ doesn’t like him.

Notice how I didn’t phrase that. I didn’t say "Hillary is crushing him in superdelegates." Because when I say "Hillary is crushing him in superdelegates," people like to point out to me that superdelegates don’t actually vote until the convention. And that is true. However "pledged" a superdelegate might be in public now, that delegate isn’t technically beholden to anyone. No doubt Hillary Clinton has ways of making life unpleasant for people who promised to vote for her at the convention and then get cold feet, but there’s no actual rule that says "once pledged for Hillary, always pledged for Hillary." The Electoral College this ain’t (and you know, even in the Electoral College, some states don’t require that delegates vote for their pledges).

Thing is, true though that may be, it doesn’t give you people a pass to just ignore them.

Let’s start by reviewing what superdelegates are and why they exist in the first place.

A "Superdelegate" – that’s not actually an official party term, by the way – is a delegate who gets to sit and vote at the Democratic National Convention despite not having been chosen for the position by any state nominating process. These are party insiders who are given this position by virtue of … I guess "service" to the party is the PR term, but "insider status" is more accurate. They are, among other things, sitting Democrat Senators, for example.

Once upon a time, they got the lion’s share of voting power at the convention. Then 1968 happened, and they pushed through a highly unpopluar candidate (Hubert Humphrey) whom nobody had actually voted for in the primaries because he participated in so few of them. In Humphrey’s defense, he was a last-minute replacement for then-incumbent President Johnson, who was showing signs of weakness in the New Hampshire primary. But that didn’t change the fact that a great many grassroots voters in the Democratic Party felt like their voices had been ignored. It didn’t help that, technically speaking, their voices could be ignored. Since superdelegates outnumbered pledged delegates by a wide margin, all of this was on the legal up-and-up: nothing in the party rules, as it turned out, actually required the Democratic Party to put up a candidate that its voters actually supported.

Humphrey lost the general election to Nixon, and the party did some necessary soul-searching. They adopted new candidate selection rules that turned nearly all selection power over to state delegates, and most states selected their delegates on the basis of popular vote in the primaries.

But this legendarily backfired. The clueless grassroots selected George McGovern, to date the most unelectable candidate nominated by a major party. His 1972 loss to Nixon is still one of the biggest in American history (is actually the biggest depending on which measure you use). So, the party bosses had been vindicated to some extent. The grassroots really DIDN’T know how to pick a candidate.

And yet, it was still fundamnetally unfair to just let Richard Daley pick the nominee all by himself.

So eventually – in the early 1980s – a compromise was reached that leaves us where we are today: about 15% of the delegate vote is comprised of so-called "superdelegates." That’s enough to crown the winner in a close race, which, few now recall, is what happened in 2008.

And no doubt that’s the role the DNC envisions for superdelegates. They break ties for the good of the party in contentious years. They are not actually kingmakers on their own, and they can’t decide a nomination in violation of the wishes of the primary electorate.

So, the way things stand now, Sanders is about 15% behind Clinton in delegates (unusually for this early in the election, they’re almost all pledged, and almost all for Clinton) – meaning he’s running at a pretty big handicap. However, his supporters point out, that handicap is merely provisional. If he manages to convincingly beat Clinton in the primaries, the superdelegates will flip. And that’s probably true.

But here’s where people making this argument need to wake up. That’s only true if Sanders convincingly beats Clinton in the primaries. If the result is at all contentious, the temptation for superdelegates to vote with Clinton anyway, even though she’s a little behind in the popular vote, will be real. I don’t know what the cutoff there is, but, scientifically speaking, it has to be less than 15%, and it probably also has to be greater than 0 (it seems really unlikely that all currently-pledged-to-Hillary delegates would switch to Sanders if he were the clear popular favorite). So, Sanders is playing with some kind of a handicap in delegates – the question is just how much of one.

I would argue that it is, in reality, "something close to the 15% ceiling." Here’s why.

  1. He is outside the party establishment. This matters. Giving the party establishment a voice is the whole reason there are superdelegates in the first place. Superdelegates are meant to tip the scales in favor of the preferences of the people who do the actual work of (a) running the party and (b) representing it in office. They don’t maintain the organization so that people who show up once every four years to pull a lever can piss it all away on a person who, until recently, wasn’t even a member of the party and frequently defied party orthodoxy in his Senate votes. These superdelegates are pledged for Hillary because they want to be. It isn’t shady backroom dealing. She scratched their back, they’re scratching hers.

  2. He is probably unelectable. Now, my Democrat friends like to point out, when I say this, that while that would be true under normal circumstances, it’s not necessarily true this year. They have a point. Trump could call sour grapes on losing the primary and start a third party challenge to exact revenge. Alternatively, the Republicans could end nominating Trump and scaring the hell out of the general electorate. Or, maybe the end up nominating Cruz and throwing the public a choice between SUPER Republican Cruz and SUPER Democrat Sanders, and Sanders suddenly looks not-completely-hopeless. So, I concede that if there were a year in which America could actually elect a President Sanders, it’s this one. But that doesn’t change the fundamental problem that Senator Sanders is NOT a mainstream candidate, and, more to the point, it doesn’t alter the reality that Hillary Clinton is still more electable than him in a general election under any circumstances. Even in the scenario where Trump wrecks the whole thing out of spite, or Cruz takes the prize and alienates a great many swing voters, Sanders is still a risky prospect. Clinton, by contrast, would be something like a sure thing in both cases. Superdelegates will prefer a sure thing to a gamble every time.

  3. He will be a disaster for his party as president if elected. Granting that Senator Sanders could maybe actually squeak out a White House win by the skin of his teeth if a whole bunch of factors line up just right in this most awkward of election years, it doesn’t seem likely to end well for the Democrats’ future electability. Sanders’ policies are hugely unpopular with the general electorate, they’re even MORE unpopular with the political establishment, and they’re half-baked to boot. A lot of people are missing that Sanders doesn’t actually have a plan to provide college for free, he just has a spreadsheet that shows some extremely optimistic estimates of what it would cost. People are missing that Sanders doesn’t actually have a plan to switch to a single-payer healthcare system, he just has a spreadsheet with some extremely optimistic estimates of what it would cost. And the punchline about those optimistic estimates of what it would cost is that they’re still too high for the general electorate to stomach. To add insult to injury, Sanders knows what can charitably be described as "fuck all" about foreign policy, and he seems unwilling to learn. At this stage in 2008, Barack Obama had a similar problem, but he was feverishly memorizing party establishment talking points on it for the upcoming debates. Senator Sanders isn’t. All he ever says about foreign policy is that he voted against the Iraq War. That will get him some plaudits in the general, granted, but probably not enough to make up for the fact that he barely knows where North Korea is. This is especially awkward given that most of what a president does these days is talk to foreigners. He’ll be like Jimmy Carter with none of the good parts. And by "the good parts" I mean that Carter was intelligent, hardworking, genuinely interested in dipolomacy, and possessed of a singularly brilliant foreign policy advisor in Zbigniew Brzezinski. Carter had a lot of flaws on foreign policy – he was unschooled, arrogant, overly idealistic to the point of naivete, and had a workaholic’s tendency to do everything himself without asking for advice or permission – and there were a lot of disastrous mistakes as a results, but in the end he exceeded expectations, and even pulled off a couple of real coups. Bernie Sanders? It’s really hard to see a silver lining there. It’s easy to say things like "the way things are going, ANY shakeup in the status quo is welcome," but at the end of the day, that’s simply not true. The real world is quite different from the bubble that Ron Paul lives in. Our enemies really are our enemies, they really are vicious, and they really do exploit our weaknesses. And the balance of power right now is about as complicated as it’s ever been, and Europe is about as useless as it’s ever been. Throw in Sanders’ advanced age and near-total lack of experience with compromise and practical dealmaking, and it’s difficult in the extreme to see how he would be anything other than a disaster in office. The country would probably recover from that. Congress would marginalize him pretty quickly, and the Republicans would certainly rise to the task of governing in that vacuum. The Democrats, though, would be scraping egg off of their face for a pretty long time. Now would be the time to reiterate that the main job of the superdelegates – the reason they exist – is to prevent exactly that from happening.

So, sorry folks, but it’s not a simple matter of Sanders winning the nomination. He has to win it by enough to overcome whatever his natural handicap in delegates is. It’s true that if he wins by more than 15% of the state delegation (aka "the popular vote"), the point will be moot, and the superdelegates will no doubt fall in line for the "good" (in shock quotes because it’s dubious – see point (3)) of the party in the general election. But if he wins by less than 15% then, well, things are interesting. There’s no doubt he’s at some kind of a natural disadvantage in delegates, the question is just how much of one. Like I said, could be anywhere from "barely above 0" to "15%." But the points I’ve outlined make me feel like it’s a lot closer to 15% than it is to 0. Let’s be conservative and call it for 7.5%, right there in the middle. That’s still a huge hill to climb in a race that the polls still show Hillary is winning handily. New Hampshire won’t be enough. Winning in South Carolina would be a game-changer for sure, but it still seems unlikely. Super Tuesday is where it counts. So what you’ve gotta ask yourself is, can Sanders win Super Tuesday by more than 7 points? I very seriously doubt it.

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