So I have some thoughts about superdelegates… If you hadn’t noticed by now, I’m kind of an election junkie. I love politics. I find them fascinating. You remember how much you hated social studies in school and how your eyes glazed over when you got p that all the civics bullshit? Not me. I loved it. Because, I’m that kid. That’s probably why I ended up deciding to be Judge of Elections for my polling district (29-8 represent!). That’s right, I’m a politics nerd.
So when I see random political discussions about the election on Facebook and such, I just can’t help jumping in. It’s not so much that I’m trying to shut people down. I’m not even trying to change their minds. My politics are crazy. I get that. I don’t expect anyone to think like me. But I get excited. Most of what excites me these days are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The best thing about the two of them is that, love them or hate them, they have done an absolutely amazing job of getting people interested in the election this season. No matter what their ideas and politics and stances are, the best thing about Bernie and the Donald is that they’ve gotten new people, particularly millennials, invested in the election like no one before them (not even Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who were both amazing at it). Unfortunately, the worst thing about Bernie and the Donald is that they’ve gotten NEW people, particularly millennials, invested in the election like no one before them.
Seriously, this is a very good thing. But there are a lot of problems with it. The one that I keep running into most recently is people misunderstanding the superdelegate system. I’ve tried to explain it about a billion times on people’s random Facebook threads in the last few weeks and I finally decided that I should just write about it on my own blog.
First, let me get one thing straight. I like Bernie Sanders. I like Bernie Sanders a lot, actually. Of the five remaining candidates vying for the nomination of the two major parties, he is totally my favorite. I would love single payer healthcare. I would love free college. I don’t think he’s perfect; actually he’s too damn conservative for my tastes (to be fair, I’m basically an anarchist). He has a couple policy ideas I don’t necessary agree with, his foreign policy experience is… well… not there… and he has too simplistic a worldview on a few other issues that are way more complicated than he likes to pretend they are. But I like him. A lot. He’s the kinda guy that I might vote for. But this isn’t about who I like or who I want to be president. This is about a fundamental misunderstanding of the system.
Now that that’s out of the way, a great number of his supporters completely misunderstand how and why he is losing. Part of that is that the system is confusing. Part of that is deliberate misinformation on his part (and that’s not a bad thing. The man is trying to win an election). But the short form is NO, SUPERDELEGATES ARE NOT STEALING THE ELECTION FROM HIM! Stop saying that. It’s simply not true. It MIGHT be true later (and maybe it should be, more on that in a bit) but it isn’t true right now. Every time you say it, you sound like a whining child who isn’t getting his way. It makes you sound like you don’t understand what you’re talking about to the establishment voters WHO YOU ACTUALLY NEED to convince that Bernie is a better choice, and they take you less and less seriously.
Furthermore, it is not the case (as I got into an argument with someone earlier) that superdelegates don’t normally declare by this time or that they aren’t normally acknowledged by the media. By the end of March 2008, 293 out 825.5 (it was a weird year and not worth explaining for the context of this) superdelegates had declared. Hillary had a slight lead on Obama amongst them: 171-122. Over the course of April and May, Obama had a massive surge and picked up 117 to Clinton’s 42. Then the war started happening with them trying to poach superdelegates from each other. This is why Hillary was able to make it almost all the way to the convention before conceding. If you don’t remember the superdelegates playing a big role in the 2008 Democratic primaries then you weren’t paying enough attention, or just didn’t understand it (understandable really, most people don’t). It is also not always the case that the superdelegates follow the will of the general electorate or that they can’t be overcome. Howard Dean had a big early lead in supers before the first primaries even started in 2004 (not as big as Hillary’s but a lead nonetheless). He ultimately lost to John Kerry. So superdelegates are important and they can (but don’t always) definitely swing the direction of the vote. But none of that matters… yet!
See, first of all Hillary Clinton is winning the pledged delegate count. For everything Sanders supporters like to complain about with the superdelegates “conspiring” against Bernie to steal the election away, none of that remotely matters if Bernie can’t get more delegates than Hillary. Right now he’s behind. He’s behind by a lot. He’s not out of it, but he has a tough road ahead. If you were to ignore superdelegates altogether (which you can’t because they’re part of the count. They always have been. It’s not a special “gotcha” it’s part of the actual target number you need by design) then depending on who’s count you believe Bernie is losing to Hillary by about 230-250 delegates. I’m going to work with the most favorable count for him and go with fivethirtyeight.com which gives her the smallest lead (1267 to 1037). I know that doesn’t sound like much, but we’re almost halfway through the primary season. It’s a lot. It’s not unsurmountable. But it’s really hard. Bernie is currently at about 92% of his projection. This is actually really good because before he had his big night last week he had been stuck in the 80s throughout all the primaries. Since delegate allocation is proportional for the democrats he needs to keep winning really big. He did that this week, but those were all in states where Hillary wasn’t trying. States he was projected to win. He needs to steal states from her or he simply will never catch up.
Now lets talk about superdelegates. Bernie supporters like to say that the media shouldn’t be reporting them because their votes don’t count yet. That’s technically true. Sort of. But technically the pledged delegates votes don’t count yet either. No one’s votes count until the convention. The only difference is that pledged delegates can’t change their mind until after the first vote, unless they are released by the person who won their pledge. Since no one other than Hillary or Bernie has won any pledged delegates for the Democrats that isn’t going to happen (it might on the Republican side since Rubio, Carson and JEB! all have delegates, but it probably won’t). But none of the supers are going to change their votes either. That’s why they’ve declared who they are going to vote for already. They don’t have to.
I think the confusion comes from a couple of things. People don’t really get what superdelegates are. They are party stakeholders whose specific job is to make sure the party mission is resistant to grassroots outsiders. If no one hits the magic number (50%+1 of the delegates… currently 2383 for the Democrats) then ALL delegates are released and the convention becomes contested. All hell breaks loose and we get some good quality television. This is what is becoming more and more likely to happen on the Republican side. The superdelegates job is to stop that. They account for about 15% of the delegates. They aren’t extra, they are included in the 4764 delegates. If the pledged delegate count is close, then the superdelegates are able to steer the ship towards the candidate they feel best fits the parties established mission. That’s specifically what they were implemented for (in 1984). Their job is to stop outsiders from coming in and taking over the party. Outsiders like Bernie Sanders.
Think about it. This is the fundamental backbone of Bernie’s campaign. Every single speech he points out that he’s an outsider. And he is is. He hasn’t even been a democrat for a year. He didn’t officially change his political party until November, six months after he said he was running for president. Bernie is effectively attempting to join a club and saying “now that I’m a member, make me leader.” The superdelegates aren’t doing the wrong thing by trying to stop him. They’re doing exactly the right thing. Exactly what anyone would do. And they should! The only reason Bernie’s supporters are upset about the superdelegates is because they happen to like him. I like him too. But there’s nothing inherently Democrat about him (even he says so). He’s a liberal, yes. But he only joined the party to take it over. And that should be hard. At the end of the day, Bernie Sanders is a charismatic guy who is really good at getting people to follow him and give him money. The fact that I happen to consider him a good guy is irrelevant. What if it was some charismatic guy that the Koch Brothers suddenly gave a lot of money to so he could run for president as a democrat and take over the party? This may sound unlikely, but that’s exactly what they did with the Republicans. The Tea Party didn’t exist before 2008 and now they effectively run the Republicans. Remember, Donald Trump was a Democrat until 2009, and then he was an independent until 2012. He could just as easily be running for the DNC nomination as the RNC. The Democrats want a way to stop that from happening so that they don’t end up in the same mess that the Republicans are in with him now. It’s literally their job to stop the Bernie Sanderses of the world.
Why don’t the superdelegates like him? Well, they don’t hate him. They just like Hillary better. She fits the mission better. And moreover, she doesn’t directly insult them. I think most people who complain about superdelegates don’t actually realize who they are. They’re always called the “party elite” and that makes them sound like a bunch of shadowed figures in backrooms doing some kind of supervillainery. They’re not. I’ve seen a few people even go so far as to suggest that Hillary’s massive lead is because she probably paid them off and that should be investigated. She hasn’t. She doesn’t have to. They’re going to like her better than him naturally. For the most part, they’re elected officials who are in the Democratic party. They’re governors, senators, congressmen, current and former presidents and veeps, members of the Democratic National Committee. In other words, most of them are people exactly like Hillary Clinton. Every time Bernie points out that he’s the one senator who voted against the Iraq war, or that he doesn’t have ties to lobbyists like all the others — that is, every time he says the things he has to say because they’re the reasons most of his supporters like him — he further alienates the superdelegates. Every time he insults Hillary for doing speaking engagements with Wall Street he is by proxy insulting every other senator and governor who does. He wants to change the party away from their personal politics… and away from the politics of the constituents who elected them.
And that’s the last thing a lot of Bernie supporters don’t seem to understand. Hillary isn’t stealing the election away from Bernie. People actually like her. MOST DEMOCRATS ACTUALLY LIKE HER! I know that’s hard to believe if you don’t like her. But they do. I’ve seen a lot of Bernie fans saying that he should be the nominee simply because he’s more popular than her. He isn’t. If you look at the Internet, it *feels* like Bernie is the most popular man on Earth. But that’s because he’s exceptionally popular with the kinds of Democrats who post a lot to the Internet. Hillary is popular with the kinds of Democrats who don’t. And believe it or not, there’s a lot more of them. The only reason that Bernie is as close to the nomination as he is is because the delegate system, much like the electoral college, is designed to equalize out large population centers and give a little extra oomph to smaller movements and localities. Bernie excels at those. Most of the states he’s winning are the lower delegate count states, but the delegate counts aren’t completely proportional to the populations. Hillary has won about 20% more pledged delegates so far, yes, but in the popular vote Bernie is getting stomped. Hillary, to this point, has 9,101,267 votes cast for her in the primaries. Bernie is at 6,417,488. For comparison, on the Republican side, Trump has pulled in 8,574,796.
I know the poll numbers might look favorable for Bernie in the general, but that’s a post for another time. Right now, Bernie isn’t really running for president. Neither is Hillary. He is running for the DNC nomination. In order to get that, as an outsider, he needs to prove that what he has brought to the party is a lasting power and message that can energize the people who were already there. He simply hasn’t done that yet. I actually kind of hope he can. I doubt he can, but I kind of hope for it. I certainly hope that when he likely fails, the party takes steps to at least move in his ideological direction in order to retain the supporters he has brought in. But if he wants to take over the party — which again, is his stated purpose — then he needs to prove that he has an actual majority WITHOUT superdelegates. And he’s not there yet.
And that is precisely why you want to know where the superdelegates stand before the convention. It tells you how much work you need to do. If you look at only the pledged delegates (1267 to 1037) then it looks like they’re neck and neck, sure. But you need 2383 points to win and there are only 1745 pledged delegates left. That means in order to win without superdelegates, Bernie needs to win 77% of the remaining delegates. With proportional allocation that is all but impossible. Even in his three landslide victories from last week, he only did that in one of the three, and it was Alaska, the smallest delegation. But if you look at the superdelegate numbers (1736 to 1066) you’ll see a more accurate look at the picture. That leaves 2049 remaining delegates including the uncommitted supers. Under the theory that the supers who haven’t committed yet are the ones who aren’t nigh guaranteed to back Hillary, one could assume that Bernie could convince them just like he can potentially convince the voters. Now he only has to win about 65% of the remaining delegates. It’s still hard but it shows a glimmer of hope. But it means he has a LOT of work to do.
Maybe next time I’ll talk about how to interpret polls and why you can’t put any real stake in general election polls before the nominations are set.