Many people on Twitter expressed surprise that Hillary Clinton basically walked away with the same amount of total delegates as Bernie Sanders after the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night, despite the decisive 20-plus-point rout by Sanders.
It highlights the longstanding but little-discussed “superdelegate” system that could play a huge role in who wins the Democratic nomination this year. It turns out, the Democratic party decides its nominee in a massively undemocratic way – and is a ticking time bomb for the party and its voter base if Sanders keeps winning.
The Democratic party’s nomination will ultimately be decided by more than 4,700 delegates at its nominating convention in the summer. Most of those delegates are allocated based on votes in each state’s primary or caucus. However, the party also assigns what are known as “superdelegates” – 700 or so people who aren’t elected by anyone during the primary process and are free to vote any way they want at the convention. They are made up of members of Congress and members of the Democratic National Committee – which is made up of much of the establishment that Sanders is implicitly running against.
According to University of Georgia lecturer Josh Putnam, superdelegates exist solely to allow DNC elites to better control who ultimately becomes their nominee. “The reason superdelegates came into being in the interim period between the 1980 and 1984 elections was to allow the party establishment an increased voice in the nomination process,” he wrote on his blog in 2009.
While they only make up about one-sixth of the total delegates, they are more than enough to swing the election either way – even if a candidate clearly wins a majority of votes and regular delegates during the primary season.
In other words, it could make the primary elections meaningless. Bernie could end up decisively winning the popular vote but still have the nomination stripped away from him at this summer’s convention.
Superdelegates, you may remember, were an issue in the 2008 primary race between Barack Obama and Clinton as well, where she held an early lead in the superdelegate count despite the fact that Obama was winning more primaries. But Sanders finds himself in a far different situation than Obama did. Obama had amassed a significant amount of superdelegates of his own, and while he was a fresh face in the party, he was always consid ered friendly to the party’s elite. Superdelegates were much more likely to switch to him once it was clear that he would win, which they ultimately did.
Sanders, on the other hand, is losing the superdelegate race by a catastrophic amount. Party elites who have announced who they are supporting have almost universally broken towards Clinton’s camp. A recent unofficial count put Clinton’s advantage at a staggering 355-14. And given how Sanders falls well outside the establishment compared to Obama in 2008, it’s hard to see how he can gain a significant number to make up for Clinton’s lead – meaning it’s more likely that superdelegates would at least want to tip the scales in favor of Clinton, even if he ends up winning more primaries.
Now, there is still a long way to go before this could ever become a reality. There’s a very good chance that Clinton will end up winning the public primary elections comfortably in the end, and it’s also entirely possible that even if Sanders does end up winning, the superdelegates will realize the mayhem it will cause if they expressly go against their voters’ wishes and cede their votes to Sanders.
But given the irrational panic Sanders seems to be causing inside the party’s establishment, anything is possible.