The hope and hype of super delegates

March 22, 2016

Last week, Politico reported on an improbable campaign strategy being laid out by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. His campaign’s hope: that a string of forthcoming primary wins will not only reduce the delegate gap between Sanders and Hillary Clinton but convince the elected officials and party stalwarts known as superdelegates to cast votes for Sanders that will crown him the nominee. (Unlike pledged delegates, whose votes are won in primaries and caucuses, superdelegates can vote for anyone.) “Sanders campaign aides say they’ll be able to keep Clinton from reaching the 2,383 delegate magic number she’d need to clinch the nomination at the convention and, by being close enough, convince the superdelegates to switch, as some did when they changed from Clinton to Barack Obama in 2008,” writes Politico.

For months, mainstream news outlets have been reporting that superdelegates are overwhelmingly favoring Clinton and that they might hand her the nomination even if Sanders were to lead in pledged delegates. Now that Clinton is piling up primary wins, the opposite possibility is being floated. But many of these stories—and the graphic “delegate trackers” offered by news outlets—may be too credulous of the idea that superdelegates would actually do such a thing.

When The Washington Post reported on Clinton’s South Carolina primary victory, it noted in the fifth paragraph, “Clinton’s advantage among delegates stood at 505 to 71 before Saturday’s primary, primarily due to her advantage among ‘superdelegates.’ ” The Post did not point out that those superdelegates could change their vote at any time. The Post is hardly alone in these habits. Prior to South Carolina, The New York Times used roughly the same numbers to report that Sanders faced a “steep climb” to the nomination. “The often overlooked delegate count in the Democratic primary shows Mr. Sanders slipping significantly behind Hillary Clinton in the race for the nomination, and the odds of his overtaking her growing increasingly remote. Mrs. Clinton has 502 delegates to Mr. Sanders’s 70; 2,383 are needed to win the nomination.” Not until the last sentence of the 10th paragraph did it mention, as an afterthought, that Clinton and Sanders were tied for pledged delegates.

But if, as many political observers believe, the superdelegates will shy away from overruling their party’s electorate and will mostly support the pledged delegate leader, then it is the pledged delegate count that matters. That’s why some outlets, such as the Times and FiveThirtyEight, only count pledged delegates in their online delegate counts and relegate superdelegates to a general aside.

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The Associated Press, on the other hand, includes superdelegates in its delegate tracker, as does Real Clear Politics. Some outlets even go so far as to weirdly count superdelegates who have endorsed a candidate as delegates who have been “won” at the time their home state holds its primary. While technically superdelegates cast their vote as part of their state’s delegation to the DNC, their endorsement could be made long before or after their state’s primary and has no official relationship to it. Nonetheless, Huffington Post informs us that on March 5 Clinton “won” 66 delegates to Sanders’ 53. But Clinton actually only won 56 delegates, and Sanders 53, in the Kansas, Nebraska, and Louisiana contests held that day. The other 10 Clinton delegates are superdelegates. Their endorsement was made separately from their state’s primary results and it could change at any minute. You can uncheck the tiny “count superdelegates” box at the bottom, but HuffPo’s default setting is to include superdelegates.

HuffPo apparently wasn’t deterred by the plea of Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz not to do exactly this. Even though counting superdelegates favors Clinton, and Wasserman-Schultz has been criticized for using her party position to advance Clinton’s campaign, she told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on Feb. 20, “The way the media has been reporting this is incorrect. There aren’t … superdelegates earned at any of these primary or caucus contests, Rachel. Those unpledged delegates … have the ability to decide who they choose to support at the convention at any point.” CJR reached out to three editors in HuffPo’s Washington, DC bureau for this story but none responded.

It seems political journalists may have forgotten what they should have learned in 2008. In that race, Clinton also held a wide endorsement lead from party elders. The media discovered superdelegates and began breathlessly tracking them one-by-one. “For a lot of people, 2008 was the learning curve to end all learning curves,” says Rebecca Sinderband, a political editor at The Post. “I worked at CNN at the time and we took the superdelegates so seriously that we’d call them up almost weekly to make sure they hadn’t changed their mind or made a decision.” But as Barack Obama amassed his lead in pledged delegates, it became apparent that the superdelegates–being Democratic state party chairs, senators, and others whose careers depend on the approval of Democratic activists and voters–were not going to reverse the results of the primaries and caucuses. To do so would have enraged Obama supporters and created a crisis of legitimacy for the party establishment. Whereas Clinton had begun the primaries with three-quarters of the 200 or so superdelegates who had endorsed out of the 700 total, by the time Clinton ended her campaign, Obama led among superdelegates 2-1. Political scientists Edward Hasecke and Scott Meinkey analyzed the data and wrote in The Post, “the 2008 case cautions against the prediction that superdelegates will play a decisive role in the Clinton-Sanders contest.”

Political journalists who have covered superdelegates say that every election is different–the only known fact is what superdelegates can do and who they say they back. “If [a superdelegate] comes out and says, ‘I’m a supporter of a candidate,’ of course they could change their mind, but they are at that time a supporter of the candidate, so they are in his or her column,” says Sinderbrand. “If the convention were held today, they’d have their vote.”

Edward-Isaac Dovere, author of the Politico piece, notes that a nomination has never been determined by superdelegates before–a fact too many other stories have neglected to mention. At the same time, this election has seen developments insiders and veteran journalists were certain could never happen because they hadn’t before—a thrice-married, reality TV star from New York winning most of the GOP’s primaries on a protectionist platform—come to pass.

“Objectively speaking, what the Sanders campaign is looking to do is a long shot that should be viewed with some skepticism. And, sure enough, the headline on the article says ‘long shot,’ and the article is injected with skepticism,” says Dovere.

Adds Sinderbrand, “We can say the party leadership will always reflect the popular vote, but that’s true until it’s untrue. If Republicans had superdelegates, you can be sure they’d be talking about using them to stop Trump.”

Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR.