Bernie Sanders and the Revenge of the Superdelegates

Photograph Source: Matt Johnson – CC BY 2.0

Unless Bernie Sanders wins enough delegates to capture the Democratic Party nomination on the first ballot, he is not going to be the nominee. The reason will be that the superdelegates–those same people who were his wrath in 2016–will come back to deny him the nomination.

The Democratic Party’s superdelegates were a reaction to the 1970 McGovern-Fraser reforms that sought to open the party to the people. Criticism after the 1968 Democratic Convention that party elites had too much control over the presidential nomination process–the proverbial smoke-filled backroom–led to a recommendation to create more political primaries. The goal was to let rank and file have more say on the party nominee. Yet by 1980 party elites felt there was too much democracy within the Democratic Party; they, not the base, still knew best who the nominee should be and what the party should stand for.

In 1980 the Democratic Party’s Hunt Commission recommended that 30% of all the Democratic National Convention delegates be reserved for members of Congress and state party chairs and vice chairs. These are the superdelegates. That 30% figure was originally implemented at 14% but by 2008 the percentage rose to nearly 20%. Their purpose was ostensibly to provide leadership, but in practice it was to maintain orthodoxy, serving as a check on primary voters who might make the wrong choice.

It was in 2008 that most Americans first heard of Democratic Party superdelegates. When Hillary Clinton first ran for president in 2008 she was presumptively the presidential heir apparent, only to come in third in the Iowa caucuses and then fall behind Barack Obama in the delegate count. Going into the Democratic National Convention she pulled one last move, convince the superdelegates to vote and throw the nomination to her. She failed in that attempt.

Eight years later the ballot for the presidential nomination pitted again the presumptive presidential heir apparent Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders. As it was true in 2008, she was heavily favored to win the nomination, with initial polls giving her a 50%+ lead over Sanders. She again floundered, with Sanders racking but victories and delegates. While superdelegates were in theory supposed to be uncommitted until the convention, Clinton secured the support of many, included them in her delegate count, and encouraged the media to report them in her totals. The purpose was to create the illusion that she had a bigger lead over Sanders than she did as part of her effort along with the Democratic leadership, as revealed in leaked emails, to make sure Sanders did not win.

Criticism from the left wing of the Democratic Party forced one change post 2016. Superdelegates could no longer vote in the first round at the national convention unless a candidate had a majority of the delegates secured to win the nomination. After the first round the superdelegates can vote.

In 2020 there will be 3,979 delegates to the Democratic National Convention who will be selected as a result of primaries and caucuses. To win the nomination one needs 1,991 delegates.

If Bernie Sanders does not get to this number by the first round, the 771 Superdelegates will get to vote, and he will need 2,376 votes to win. Fat chance!

Much in the same way that the Democratic Party and its leadership including Deborah Wasserman Schultz were stacked against Sanders in 2016, Tom Perez and much of the party leadership are opposed to him again.  Perhaps proof of this opposition is the disappointment in this year’s presumptive presidential heir apparent Joe Biden and the search for his moderate replacement in Peter Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Michael Bloomberg.

Despite coming behind Sanders twice in the popular vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg is seen in the media and party as the alternative to Sanders. Despite fifth and third place finishes in these states, Klobuchar is seen as a winner and rising moderate alternative. And without a delegate to his name but $400 million already spent, Bloomberg is the billionaire anthesis to Sanders who has pledged to take on the billionaires. The moderate choice to Sanders is thus to vote for a billionaire or candidates who take money from billionaires. In either case the message is clear, the Democratic Party establishment–one that has been pro-business, corporate, and complicit in shoving neo-liberalism down the throats of the American public and pushing white working class over to Trump and the Republicans—does not want Sanders.

By all accounts Sanders should be considered the populist frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Yet the plethora of candidates who are running and eating up delegates will make that hard. Bloomberg on Super Tuesday when 34% of the pledged delegates are in play, stands a great chance of winning enough to reduce the mathematical probability that any candidates can get to 1,991 by the first round. Should they happen, the superdelegates enter and that will no doubt cast the die against Sanders.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.