If Bernie Sanders and his supporters think the deck of Democratic delegates is stacked against him, they might blame a former North Carolina governor.
Heading into Tuesday’s New York primary, Sanders was riding a hot streak. Since late March he’d won eight of nine recent nominating contests over Hillary Clinton.
That brought him to 1,094 pledged convention delegates, only 213 behind Clinton with 2,383 needed for nomination. But with superdelegates he faces a bigger deficit.
They’re the 712 party and elected officials who make up 30 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination. Before Tuesday, 469 had committed to Clinton; 31 to Sanders.
Little wonder that some Sanders supporters are crying foul.
The Vermont senator won February’s New Hampshire primary with 60.4 percent of the vote. Yet he and Clinton each have 15 of the state’s delegates. In Maine, he won 64 percent of the vote in March caucuses and took 16 of 25 pledged delegates. But three of the five superdelegates are backing Clinton.
A Maine lawmaker plans to propose a rules change that would require superdelegates to cast their first convention ballot for the candidate who won their state or congressional district.
“Superdelegates symbolize something that has to go: the entrenched, inside-the-Beltway embrace of power and influence by the Democratic Illuminati that does little for the poor and middle-class and everything for the 1 percent that writes the big checks,” blogger Michael Winship wrote this month on Huffington Post.
Sanders, an outsider who has bucked the party establishment, trails in part because that establishment and its superdelegates back his opponent.
But in a way, that’s how it was intended to work.
How superdelegates began
After Jimmy Carter’s 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan – and with the sour memory of George McGovern’s landslide 1972 defeat by Richard Nixon – party Chairman Charles Manatt named a group to re-evaluate the nomination process. It became known as the Hunt Commission, after its chairman, N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt.
The commission was a response to party reforms that followed the 1968 convention.
The nomination that year had gone to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who hadn’t run in a single primary. He was tapped by party leaders behind closed doors. So that earlier commission, chaired by McGovern, responded by reducing the influence of party leaders.
Too much so for the Hunt Commission.
“To an alarming extent our party’s public officials have not participated in and thus have felt only a limited responsibility for our recent national conventions,” the commission reported in 1982. “We propose to make our convention more representative … by giving a greater role to those elected and party officials who speak for broad constituencies within the party.”
Hunt tells me he still thinks that’s a good idea.
“People should look back at the McGovern campaign, when the Democrats had one of their worst losses in history, not only losing the presidency but state and local races all across America,” he says.
“And so the creation of superdelegates was done to ensure that a majority of Democrats, as understood by top Democratic elected officials like senators, governors, congressmen and others, would see the various candidates as people who could attain a majority of American votes.”
Is it fair? “Absolutely fair and necessary to win,” Hunt says. “Because we are talking about winning elections.”
U.S. Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat who served as executive director of the Hunt Commission, says superdelegates give elected officials a stake in the convention and affirm the choice of primary and caucus voters.
“The notion that you’d have an independent group of delegates who would overturn a popular verdict, I don’t think anybody would have anticipated,” Price says. “Have superdelegates or unpledged delegates in either party ever overturned the popular verdict? It’s not likely to happen.”
Playing by the rules
Tad Devine, a senior Sanders adviser, says instead of fighting superdelegates, the Vermont senator is trying to convert them. In 2008 Clinton had a big superdelegate edge over Barack Obama. But as Obama began winning, he flipped more than 100 superdelegates.
“So there is precedent for large-scale switches,” says Devine, who worked with the Hunt Commission. “That’s the route we’re going to try to pursue. … The problem with challenging the fairness of them is it sounds like sour grapes at this point in the process. The rules were set. We’re trying to play by them.”
But it’s still controversial.
Longtime journalist Ken Bode was the research director for the McGovern Commission. He’s still a fan of its 1972 reforms. I asked him about superdelegates and the 2016 campaign.
“There is plenty of talk about the Republican convention being rigged. The fact is that the Democratic convention is more clearly rigged,” he said in an email. “If the GOP had a similar system, you can imagine Jeb! Bush getting the lion’s share of the superdelegates before the primaries ever began.
“Imagine the bellowing we would have heard from (Ted) Cruz, (Donald) Trump and the other 14 candidates.”