Bernie Sanders May Not Like the Superdelegates, but the Party Should

Clinton is comfortably in the lead, as long as her superdelegates stick with her. Photo: Sean Proctor/Bloomberg

Bernie Sanders is right about one thing: The Democratic Party’s system for nominating candidates for president is undemocratic. It’s unfair to him, and it will continue to be unfair to any other candidates who come out of the left side of the party.

The nomination might be out of reach for Sanders, but he’s still running, and reform is his goal, not party unity or victory in November.

The Democrats in some states exclude independents from their primaries and caucuses, which has been unfair to Sanders because he attracts people who, like himself, are not faithful Democrats. But the big unfairness, which probably will deny Sanders the nomination that he could have won, is the bloc of “superdelegates,” who get their convention votes by virtue of their offices and services to the party, not their support for a candidate.

The superdelegates include 21 governors, 240 members of Congress, 434 members of the Democratic National Committee (who include state party committee leaders), and 20 former high officials. For most, it’s not their nature to be radical; it’s not in them to risk their well-established careers on an outsider candidate preaching revolution.

With some overlap in the categories, the superdelegates add up to 715 votes out of the 4,766 to be cast at the convention. Hillary Clinton has 537 commitments from them, most made before the formal campaign for votes got started—before anyone believed that Sanders could attract the votes of 5% of Democrats, much less 50%. Sanders has 42, Martin O’Malley has one, and 160 superdelegates have stayed above the fray, at least in public.

What makes this particularly interesting is that superdelegates’ commitments are like Sam Goldwyn’s verbal contracts: not worth the paper they are printed on. Even on the first ballot, they can vote as they please, in the party’s interest or their own.

By one recent count, Clinton has 1,768 regular delegates and Sanders has 1,497. Without the superdelegates, the race might still be too close to call, what with California, New Jersey, and other states still to select delegates this month. Instead, Clinton is comfortably in the lead, needing fewer than 100 more regular delegates to reach the magic number of 2,384, as long as her superdelegates stick with her.

This isn’t fair, but it’s sensible party policy to put more responsibility on the people who actually run the party and less on the masses who fall in love with individual candidates.

The Democratic Party invented superdelegates after the great disasters of the 1970s. Insurgents in 1972 beat party regulars in many states that year, nominated Sen. George McGovern, and suffered a gigantic defeat. Then Jimmy Carter, a determined outsider with little experience, narrowly won the nomination and the presidency in 1976. After four years of floundering, he lost his re-election bid to Republican Ronald Reagan.

Then, a counter-reformation movement, blaming party radicals for nominating unelectable candidates, created the superdelegates. Unfortunately for the party, the superdelegates’ judgment was also fallible. They helped pick Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984 and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, but both lost heavily.

Superdelegates were not important in the next six nominating contests. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama nailed down majorities of the pledged delegates before the conventions, although Obama’s margin in 2008 was narrow.

All but forgotten by many, the superdelegates became crucially important this year. Hillary Clinton was well ahead before the campaign for popular votes began, and she has held the lead because of those superdelegates. In theory, the superdelegates could see Clinton’s weaknesses, renege on their pledges, and support Sanders or someone else, but in practice, most of them would rather lose than go back on their commitments.

At least the Democrats have avoided the fate of the Republicans, whose voters decided to abandon the party as they knew it and nominate an extreme outsider whose chief virtue is the threat he poses to the established order. The Republicans might have been better off this year if they also had a sizable bloc of superdelegates who could have kept their selection process stable.

When the election of 2016 is finally over, one or both parties will be trying to reform to make sure that the disasters of 2016 do not befall them again. Let us hope, when the reformists gather to build new nominating rules, that they remember the lessons of the past and balance popular sovereignty with political responsibility.

Editorial page editor Thomas G. Donlan receives e-mail at [email protected]

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