Bernie Sanders’ win in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night came with some pretty impressive footnotes:
1. His margin of victory was the highest for a non-incumbent candidate in any state since JFK.
2. He won almost every demographic group—male, female, young, old, moderate, liberal, college educated, high school-educated—with the exception of voters making more than $200,000 per year.
3. He became the first Jewish candidate to win a state primary in U.S. history.
4. He became the first non-Christian candidate to win a state primary in U.S. history.
Sanders isn’t one to emphasize his religious affiliation—his political beliefs make him enough of an outsider as it is—so you won’t read much coverage about the historic nature of his win. What you will read about is how it’s going to change his primary battle against Hillary Clinton. The path to the nomination is still difficult for Sanders, and Clinton should still be considered the favorite, but winning New Hampshire in a blowout will give his candidacy a new kind of credibility and momentum. Sanders was polling below five percent nationally when he joined the race, and to come this far in such a short time, against an overwhelming favorite, is a bit staggering—so staggering that a frustrated Clinton “might “shake up her entire campaign.
The narrative has changed, which means that establishment figures are duty-bound to change it back. If you’re an avid follower of politics, you may have seen tweets like these in the aftermath of the win:
“Oh no,” you might be thinking, “look at those delegate totals! He’s getting killed! The New Hampshire primary is meaningless! He didn’t even really win!” On the Sanders Reddit page this morning, users were asking whether the whole primary process was a Sisyphean task, and if victory was impossible.
Make no mistake: That’s the point of this kind of messaging. To discourage, dismay, and dishearten, in the wake of something that should feel really positive for Sanders supporters. Reality check: The system is bigger than you, and you can’t change it, so go home.
I have no clue if Timothy McBride has any affiliation or even affection for Hillary Clinton, and he was certainly not alone in advancing this talking point. What I do know is that he tweeted these statistics out last night and again this morning, and whatever his intentions—and those like him—Clinton herself could not have written a better media script.
So what’s happening here? Are those delegate counts right?
Well, no—McBride’s math is wrong, but I’m assuming that wasn’t a malicious mistake. The actual count is 394-42.
So technically, yes, the count is close to accurate. He’s not overtly lying. But are the numbers illustrative of some critical, insurmountable problem for Sanders? Not at all. Are they even relevant to the primary race? Barely. Certainly not now, and probably not ever. Are these messages deceptive, even subtly? Yes. Absolutely. And they’re propagated by “experts” who are withholding the full story in the hopes that people like you and me are too stupid and complacent to find out on our own.
McBride’s sneaky tactic is to count “Superdelegates,” which is how he arrives at his imbalanced total. Accept the numbers blindly, and you might feel an impulse toward panic. My message to you: Chill. It’s a clever trick, but a silly one, and it won’t affect anything. To counter this narrative, let’s examine the political reality behind Superdelegates, and explain how they really work, Q&A style.
Q: You say Superdelegates don’t matter, but I don’t even know what they are. How does Hillary have 300+ already?
A: Let’s start simple: The Democratic nominee for president is decided based on which candidate wins the most delegates. You will find conflicting information about how many there are in 2016, but according to the AP, the delegate total is 4,763. It takes 2,382 of those to secure the nomination. And of the 4,763, 712 are “Superdelegates”—about 15 percent of the overall total.
Q: Okay, but what’s the difference?
A: The 4,051 “normal” delegates are allocated based on the votes in each state. That’s why we have primaries and caucuses in all of them, eventually—the will of the people decides where each of these delegates goes. In New Hampshire last night, Sanders won 13 delegates to Clinton’s nine, with two left to award when the last precincts report (in all likelihood, based on current percentages, it will finish 15-9 for Sanders). In Iowa, where Clinton won a narrow victory, the current delegate count is 23-21 in her favor. This process will repeat in every state until all 4,051 “normal” delegates have been alloted.
On the Democratic side, these delegates are rewarded proportionally in each state, rather than on the winner-take-all basis most states use in the electoral college. Those delegates are “pledged” to the appropriate candidate, and will not change affiliation at the national convention.
Q: That makes sense, but what are Superdelegates?
A: The remaining 712 delegates are not decided by each state’s popular vote, but rather by individuals who are given a vote by the Democratic party. They are free to choose whoever they want at the national convention, regardless of how the vote went in their home state.
Q: Who gets to be a Superdelegate?
A: Every Democratic member of Congress, House and Senate, is a Superdelegate (240 total). Every Democratic governor is a Superdelegate (20 total). Certain “distinguished party leaders,” 20 in all, are given Superdelegate status. And finally, the Democratic National Committee names an additional 432 Superdelegates—an honor that typically goes to mayors, chairs and vice-chairs of the state party, and other dignitaries.
Q: So they have way more importance than an ordinary voter?
A: Oh yeah. In 2008, each Superdelegate had about as much clout as 10,000 voters. It will be roughly the same in 2016.
Q: How did this system come to exist?
A: I’ll make this history lesson brief: In 1968, after the riots at the Democratic national convention in Chicago, party leaders knew they needed to change the nomination process to give ordinary people more of a say in how the potential president was chosen. Thus, the state-by-state primary/caucus system was born. By the 1980s, the party elites felt left out of the process, bereft of all influence, and they thought their absence had hurt the party when weaker candidates like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter were nominated. Jim Hunt, Governor of North Carolina, was commissioned to fix the alleged problem, and by 1984 the Superdelegate system was implemented. Democrats thought that by giving more power to party leaders, it would prevent “unelectable” candidates, beloved by the populace, from costing them the general election.
Q: Why does Hillary Clinton have so many more Superdelegates this time around?
A: Because Superdelegates are the establishment, and Clinton is the establishment candidate. Period.
A quick look at the chart below, courtesy of Wikipedia, shows how insanely imbalanced the Superdelegate race is at this point in time:
In Congress, Hillary Clinton has 39 of the 47 Senators, with seven uncommitted. Bernie Sanders has an endorsement from just one Senator. That Senator’s name? Bernie Sanders. In the House, Hillary leads 157-2, and her advantage in the DNC is 138-10. Even among the “distinguished party leaders,” which includes Bill Clinton, Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, and Walter Mondale, she leads eight to one. Overall, the total is 355-14, with 341 uncommitted.
So when you see tweets like McBride’s above, where he cites Clinton’s 431-50 edge, he’s adding these “pledged” Superdelegates. We’ve already seen that his math is wrong—per the New York Times, the updated total is 394-42. But when you look at actual popular votes that have taken place, Sanders leads 34-32.
Q: From everything you’ve told me so far, I can’t understand why you’re calling Superdelegate votes “irrelevant.” It seems to me like they have the same voting power as a normal delegate, and this puts Sanders in a tremendous hole from the word “go.”
A: Here’s why it doesn’t matter: Superdelegates have never decided a Democratic nomination. It would be insane, even by the corrupt standards of the Democratic National Committee, if a small group of party elites went against the will of the people to choose the presidential nominee.
This has already been an incredibly tense election, and Sanders voters are already expressing their unwillingness to vote for Clinton in the general election. When you look at the astounding numbers from Iowa and New Hampshire, where more than 80 percent of young voters have chosen Sanders over Clinton, regardless of gender, it’s clear that Clinton already finds herself in a very tenuous position for the general election. It will be tough to motivate young supporters, but any hint that Bernie was screwed by the establishment will result in total abandonment.
Democrats win when turnout is high, and if the DNC decides to go against the will of the people and force Clinton down the electorate’s throat, they’d be committing political suicide.
The important thing to know here is that Superdelegates are merely pledged to a candidate. We know who they support because they’ve stated it publicly, or have been asked by journalists. They are not committed, and can change at any time. If Bernie Sanders wins the popular vote, he will be the nominee. End of story.
Q: But it’s not the end of the story, is it? Hasn’t the DNC pulled some shady shit already?
A: Oh yeah. They totally rigged the debate schedule to limit Sanders’ exposure, and now that he’s gaining ground on Clinton, they’re desperate to add more. Sanders probably won the popular vote in Iowa, but the party elite there are refusing to release popular vote totals, even though that’s exactly what they did in 2008. (Edit: It appears these 2008 numbers did not come from the party itself. Regardless, it’s a perversion of democracy that they haven’t been released.) Their entire modus operandi has been an embarrassment of Clinton protectionism from the very beginning.
However, that doesn’t mean they’ll overthrow the will of the people when it comes to the presidential nomination. Assuming Sanders wins the popular vote nationwide, and assuming the Superdelegates put Clinton over the top, let’s consider the consequences:
1. Sanders supporters abandon Clinton completely, cutting off a huge portion of her base.
2. Massive protests at the convention, and a party split in half.
3. Republicans have the easiest attack in presidential election history: “Her own party didn’t even want her!”
4. The perception that Clinton is fatally dishonest grows wings, and even if people are reluctant to vote for the GOP nominee, an independent like Bloomberg strips away an awful lot of votes.
All of this spells disaster for the Democrats. It may not be too corrupt for the DNC to imagine—they’ve got terrific imaginations—but it’s too transparent to execute. The winner of the delegate count from state primaries and caucuses will win the nomination, and the Superdelegates will fall in line. Just as they have in every single election since the system was implemented. (Including in 2008, when this same concern was raised—would Superdelegates cost Obama the nomination?)
Even the Democratic power structure isn’t so short-sighted that it would cut off its nose to spite its face.
Q: If Superdelegates can shift allegiances, and if going against the people’s will is so unthinkable, why don’t the pundits ever mention it?
A: It’s almost like there’s an agenda, right? Not to keep picking on McBride, who is a very minor figure in all this, and who had the bad luck to appear on my timeline yesterday, but what purpose do those numbers serve other than to discourage Sanders supporters? They’re essentially meaningless, but when presented without context, they give the impression of an unbeatable juggernaut, and tacitly encourage outsiders to give up all hope. On a smaller level, it’s the same when you see charts like these, from Politico:
Sanders wins, but still loses the delegate count? How? Why?
It’s enough to provoke despair, if you don’t understand the system, and none of these outlets are bothering to explain. The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions, and the distorted reality can seem overwhelming. I don’t know if the explicit goal is to have a chilling effect on participation, and to discourage passionate people from participating in our democracy, but it certainly feels that way.
So, do yourself a favor and ignore the Superdelegates. If Hillary Clinton wins the most popular delegates, she will be the party nominee. If Bernie Sanders wins the most popular delegates, he will be the party nominee. And anyone who tells you otherwise—even by implication, and even armed with misleading statistics—is selling you a bill of goods. Don’t buy it.