On Thursday, New York Times journalists Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein reported the results of their interviews with 93 of the Democratic Party’s 771 superdelegates. Of those Lerer and Epstein spoke to, only nine thought that Bernie Sanders should become the Democratic nominee “purely on the basis of arriving at the convention with a plurality, if he was short of a majority.”
Some seemed embarrassed to be contemplating whether to override the will of primary voters. Connecticut congressman and superdelegate Jim Himes told the Times, “We’re way, way, way past the day where party leaders can determine an outcome here,” before noting his openness to a “vibrant conversation” about doing exactly that.
Different superdelegates interviewed for the Times story made one (or more) of at least three arguments for awarding the nomination to a candidate with fewer votes than Sanders (or even no votes at all, if the nominee was a “white knight” who didn’t run in any primaries). First, some of the superdelegates — and other prominent Democrats quoted in the piece — argued that it would be hypocritical of Sanders or his supporters to complain about disregarding the voters given the positions Sanders himself took during the 2016 primary and his role in shaping the current convention rules. Second, some appealed to electability considerations. Even if a plurality of primary voters favored Sanders, these superdelegates felt, the convention’s duty to respect that democratic mandate would be less important than picking a candidate who could defeat Donald Trump. Finally, some asserted that if Sanders came to the convention with only a plurality, with the majority of primary voters having gotten behind more moderate candidates, this would amount to a democratic mandate for a broadly defined anti-Sanders centrism.
Each of these arguments can be easily answered.
The Argument From Hypocrisy
Lerer and Epstein quote Elizabeth Warren as arguing that Bernie Sanders had “a big hand in writing” the rules governing the 2020 Democratic nomination process, which would make it hypocritical for him to “ask to change it now.” Several interviewed superdelegates echoed the same concern.
But what Sanders and his supporters are advocating isn’t a last-minute revision to the rules, but simply that superdelegates voluntarily go along with the preferences of primary voters. Talk of “the rules” is a red herring. And even if Sanders were insisting on a rules alteration, Warren’s hypocrisy charge would still be unfounded. In negotiations about the 2020 nomination process, Sanders and his supporters pushed hard to both minimize the number of superdelegates and their role in the process. The rule allowing superdelegates to cast a vote on the second ballot if no candidate came in with an outright majority of pledged delegates was a compromise, not a reflection of Sanders’s raw preferences. Accusing him of hypocrisy would be like criticizing a union negotiator for advocating a significant wage raise after the union “had a big hand in” previous negotiations that led to a more modest hike.
The charge of hypocrisy is more reasonable when applied to Sanders’s stance in the 2016 nomination process. At one point during the 2016 primaries, Sanders indicated his openness to being supported by superdelegates (while making it clear he would prefer that those superdelegates not exist).
Even so, it’s worth remembering that the Vermont senator didn’t go ahead with this plan. In fact, he did the opposite, endorsing Clinton before the convention and moving on the floor to nominate her by acclamation. It’s also worth noting that even if we assume the most uncharitable interpretation of Sanders’s stance in 2016, an inconsistency between his stance then and his stance now would tell us nothing about which of the two conflicting positions was right. If the democratic argument for respecting the will of the primary voters is compelling, then Sanders shouldn’t have flirted with the possibility of relying on superdelegates in 2016 — and eighty-four of the ninety-three superdelegates interviewed by the New York Times are just as wrong to declare their support for such a plan now.
The Electability Argument
Lerer and Epstein report that party leaders from “California to the Carolinas, and North Dakota to Ohio” worry that Sanders would lose to Trump. If this concern were well-founded, superdelegates could argue that they have to weigh two competing values against each other — the importance of respecting the desires of the voters and the profound importance of defeating Donald Trump.
There are three problems with this argument. First, neither party has had a brokered convention since 1952 — long before the public started to see primaries as an important source of democratic legitimacy for nominees rather than as largely meaningless “beauty pageants.” Any allegedly more electable candidate chosen in violation of the will of the voters would surely be vastly less electable by virtue of being tarnished by that nomination method. It’s hard to overestimate how bitter and alienated from the process tens of millions of progressives would feel if the nomination were stolen in this way.
Second, the “more electable” candidates apparently being contemplated include everyone from Nancy Pelosi (whose approval ratings are dismal compared to Sanders) to Ohio senator Sherrod Brown (who is a relative unknown outside of his home state). We have no idea how either would fare against Trump — even if they weren’t going into the general election carrying the albatross of a nomination process many voters considered illegitimate.
Finally, much of the available evidence shows Sanders to be, if anything, especially electable. The day after the paper of record published the Lerer and Epstein superdelegate article, Steve Phillips made a powerful case for Sanders’s bona fides on the opinion page.
Almost all of the current polling data shows Mr. Sanders winning the national popular vote. In the most recent national polls testing Democratic candidates against Mr. Trump, Mr. Sanders beat him in every single one, with margins varying from 2 percent to 6 percent. This has been the case for nearly a year now, with Mr. Sanders outpolling the president in 67 of 72 head-to-head polls since March.
As 2016 proved when Hillary Clinton defeated Mr. Trump in the popular vote by nearly three million votes, however, the Electoral College is what matters most. There, Mr. Sanders also does well, outperforming Mr. Trump in polls of the pivotal battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In the one poll showing significant Trump strength in Wisconsin (Quinnipiac), Mr. Sanders still fares the best of the Democratic contenders.
The Argument From an Anti-Sanders Majority
Lerer and Epstein quote superdelegate Jay Jacobs as saying that “if [Sanders] doesn’t have a majority,” it “stands to reason” that he may be denied the nomination. The obvious objection is that if Sanders arrived in Milwaukee with a plurality, any alternative nominee would by definition be even further from having a majority.
Perhaps Jacobs’s idea is that if Sanders entered the convention with, say, 40 percent of the vote, it would amount to a 60 percent majority, but for anti-Bernie centrism. The problem is that, as Seth Ackerman has argued, this view simply doesn’t reflect the way that most rank-and-file Democrats view the nomination battle. Different voters have different first choices, but only a hard-core minority on each side views the contest as an ideological struggle between candidates who stand for profoundly disparate things rather than as a decision about which particular candidate should be the standard-bearer for the same broadly progressive cause. Ackerman cites one poll in which Democrats who view Sanders as aligning “very closely” with their “personal political views” outnumber those who see the alignment as “not close at all” by a two-to-one margin, and another in which only 23 percent of Democrats would be “disappointed” if Sanders were the nominee.
In the future, instituting a reform like instant run-off voting for primaries would be an excellent idea. For now, though, it would be absurd for superdelegates to unseat the winner of a democratic contest because of their guesswork about how voters would have ranked the choices on their ballot if they’d had a way to do so — especially when that guesswork flies in the face of polling evidence.
After Sanders’s resounding double-digit victory in Nevada, it’s possible that he will make all of this irrelevant by continuing to pick up momentum and riding a Super Tuesday wave into a first-ballot majority at the convention. If he comes in with a plurality, however, his supporters should be prepared to let the superdelegates know how foolish it would be to override the will of the voters — and hand the general election to Donald Trump.