Superdelegates, Clarify Your Role
Feb. 19, 2016
Even after Bernie Sanders’s overwhelming popular victory in New Hampshire on Feb. 9, some of his supporters began fretting about a new menace to his candidacy: “superdelegates” who — at least in theory — could deliver the nomination to Hillary Clinton in July’s convention.
Superdelegates are party bigwigs — 712 Democratic leaders, legislators, governors and the like. They can vote for any candidate at the nominating convention, regardless of whether that candidate won the popular vote. These unpledged delegates make up 30 percent of the 2,382 delegates whose votes are needed to win the nomination, and could thus make all the difference.
The status of Hillary and Bill Clinton as senior figures in the Democratic Party has allowed Mrs. Clinton to secure public endorsements from many more superdelegates than Mr. Sanders. Late last year, The Associated Press surveyed 80 percent of the Democratic superdelegates and found that 359 had endorsed Mrs. Clinton, versus eight for Mr. Sanders. The rest remained uncommitted.
In the New Hampshire primary last week, which Mrs. Clinton lost by 22 percentage points, Mr. Sanders won 15 of the state’s 24 pledged delegates, and Mrs. Clinton won nine. But because she has the support of six of the state’s eight unpledged superdelegates, including Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Gov. Maggie Hassan, she is virtually tied with Mr. Sanders in the New Hampshire delegate count.
Last week, MoveOn.org, a voter action group that has endorsed Mr. Sanders, began a petition drive demanding that superdelegates pledge to back the winner of the national popular vote. About 350,000 people have signed this petition and a related one. Next up are petition drives in each of the 50 states, targeting individual superdelegates.
“The key to winning the presidency in November will be mobilizing tremendous grass-roots enthusiasm, and nothing would take the wind out of people’s sails faster than to have the Democratic nominee chosen by party insiders,” said Ben Wikler, MoveOn’s Washington director. Mr. Wikler says that if Mrs. Clinton wins the popular vote, superdelegates who support Mr. Sanders should likewise vote for her.
Some of these worries seem overblown. Superdelegates can switch allegiance at any time, and a big chunk of them already say they’ll remain uncommitted until a clear primary winner emerges. Mr. Sanders said Sunday that if he secures a clear lead in the primaries, he’s confident he’ll win over Mrs. Clinton’s superdelegates. And many party leaders will think twice before pressing for the nomination of a candidate voters have rejected. In 2008, Mrs. Clinton held a superdelegate lead, but when she lost the primaries to Barack Obama her superdelegates mounted no insurgency at the convention.
Superdelegates serve multiple functions at the convention, among them maintaining order — for example, by casting their votes to avoid deadlock in a fragmented field. That is why superdelegates shouldn’t have to make ironclad pledges to transfer their fealty to the biggest vote-getter. That could set a precedent Democrats might live to regret.
Still, this issue presents the party with an important opportunity. By better explaining the role of superdelegates, and publicly acknowledging that the 2016 presidential nomination rightly belongs to the majority vote-getter, Democrats could show new, youthful voters that the party wants their energy and their ideas inside the tent. To these idealistic voters, superdelegate influence reeks of smoke-filled rooms and establishment deals, when in fact they were created to end such maneuverings. That wrong perception doesn’t help Mrs. Clinton.
“We just had a rally here in Las Vegas that was at capacity with a lot of young people who feel like they have a shot at making a difference,” said Erin Bilbray, a Sanders superdelegate. She wants to vote for Mr. Sanders at the convention, but regardless, “I will support the Democratic nominee. It’s a fairness issue. We have got to keep these young people engaged, and to do that, you’ve got to make the system fair, and give no one the perception it’s not.”