Huffpost Politics
Sam Stein Headshot

Clinton's Push For Popular Vote Win May Not Persuade Superdelegates

Posted: Updated:

In recent days, aides to Sen. Hillary Clinton have increasingly pressed the idea that the popular vote in the Democratic primary should be a guide for superdelegates deciding which candidate to support.

On Tuesday, for example, Clinton's chief delegate counter Harold Ickes told Talking Points Memo, "I think being ahead in the popular vote is an important factor. I don't think it's dispositive...if at the end of the process she's running very slightly behind in the delegates overall, the popular vote will be important. I don't think it's absolutely critical."

But how much sway will the popular vote tally truly hold should Clinton (despite the long odds) actually prevail by that measure?

Interviews with a handful of superdelegates from various regions of the country suggest nearly none.

To begin with, these Democratic officials caution that the chances of Clinton actually overcoming Sen. Barack Obama's popular vote lead are exceedingly small. According to Real Clear Politics, Obama currently bests Clinton by a projected 820,000 total votes. If one includes the results of Florida, which, at this point, is not in the technical sense counted, that spread is reduced to 420,000. Michigan, where Obama's name was not on the ballot, is even more unlikely to be considered by its current tally.

Should Michigan and Florida not revote, a scenario that appears highly likely, Clinton would have to win by unexpectedly (perhaps jaw dropping-ly) large margins in the remaining ten states in order to erase that gap.

Even if she did, however, it would not necessarily portend success. The superdelegates interviewed by The Huffington Post all suggested that the popular vote would be a small measure by which they would consider the Democratic nominee.

"I believe the Clinton campaign will make a dramatic appeal for the undeclared super delegates using a variety of specious arguments," said Donna Brazile, Al Gore's former campaign manager, "but what matters most is party unity and discipline...Honestly, it's a matter of conscience and judgment because there are no rules to guide our thinking."

Much more pertinent to a candidate's resume, as Brazille and others noted, would be the ability of the candidate to "make a good president, but also beat [Sen. John] McCain." And on this count, Clinton may in fact have a stronger case to make. As pointed out by more than one superdelegate, Clinton has triumphed in many of the traditional swing states on the electoral map, a potentially persuasive fact for those trying to map out a path to November success.

"What if you have it down to 100 delegates?" Nathan Smith, superdelegate and Kentucky Democratic Party vice chairman, asked. "Does the popular vote then have an effect? Sure it does. But I look at it in terms of states. Who is winning the states we need this fall. That has the most effect on me... Who is going to make the case to me that they are going to be the strongest candidate this fall? I want to see the grid. I want to see what states you can carry."

Another uncommitted superdelegate from the northwest who asked not to be identified iterated much the same argument.

"The popular vote, if you are talking nationwide, in my mind is maybe a factor," he said. "But none of these are black and white. I'm developing a formula where I give weight to certain pieces of the pie. I would give greater weight to the outcome of my state's primary then the national vote. After that electability plays into it.... Between the primary and convention floor something happens where it appears he can't be elected that would change my vote."

The popular vote tally in the Democratic primary has no official bearing on determining who should be the party's White House nominee. But recently, as the prospects of overtaking Obama's pledged delegate lead have become increasingly bleak, the Clinton campaign has looked to the popular vote as a symbolic tool for persuading superdelegate support. The argument is that, in a true Democratic forum, the will of all voters should matter more than a select group determined by caucuses and proportional representation.

"Let's assume that Sen. Clinton goes ahead in the popular vote count," Clinton surrogate and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said in a March 13 conference call with reporters. He then asked, "Which is more democratic" -- the delegates or the votes?

But for all the Jeffersonian sensibilities to the argument, the truth, some superdelegates say, is that choosing a nominee by this metric would cause as much harm as goodwill. Indeed, judging a candidate by the national popular vote could put many superdelegates at odds with the wishes of voters in their home districts. And while many officials have already done just that -- and others do not have to worry about an electoral backlash -- still more have to consider their political security when making their nominee choice.

"What do you expect us to tell people that the metric we offered -- pledged delegates -- no longer applies," said an uncommitted superdelegate. "If it had been the popular vote from the beginning, Chris Dodd would have moved his family to Los Angeles and not Des Moines. Everyone said it was a race for delegates. We spent two years putting together plans that were based on delegates... Lets say it's the Red Sox and Yankees fighting for the division. Are you going to decide it based on games won? Or, towards the end, will it change to overall score because that, in some ways, tells you who is the better team? No, you are going to go by the record because that's the way it is ultimately judged."