POLITICS
04/20/2016 06:27 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2016

Bernie Sanders' Superdelegate Plan Puts His Progressive Base In A Bind

Sanders' team plans to fight for superdelegates even if Hillary Clinton wins the popular vote.
Sanders currently trails Clinton in both pledged delegates and superdelegates.
Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Sanders currently trails Clinton in both pledged delegates and superdelegates.

WASHINGTON -- A day after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lost the New York primary election that he desperately needed to win, there were no signs that he would dial back his campaign against Hillary Clinton before the Democratic convention in July.

Mark Longabaugh, a top aide to the senator, told The Huffington Post that Sanders is prepared to stay in the race even if it becomes clear that Clinton has a majority of the pledged delegates and an insurmountable lead after the final primary on June 7.

The strategy outlined by Longabaugh echoed the case made the night before by Sanders' campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, who told MSNBC that the campaign will try to flip superdelegates away from Clinton before the convention. Neither candidate, Longabaugh argued, will have enough pledged delegates to secure the presidential nomination without the help of superdelegates. The latter officials will then have to decide which candidate gives the party the best shot to win in November. Sanders and his aides believe they have the better case.

"We intend to go to the convention and make the superdelegates vote," Longabaugh said.  

Whether overconfidence or merely a bluff, the posture of the Sanders campaign creates a delicate dynamic for Democrats hoping for a relatively quiet end to the primary season. It also puts many of Sanders' supporters in a difficult position, since they have been the ones demanding that superdelegates stick by the candidate who heads into the convention with the most votes.

Superdelegates shouldn't overrule the will of the Democratic grassroots. Ben Wikler of MoveOn.org

One group, MoveOn.org, has long called for superdelegates to reflect the will of the people. Asked about Sanders' strategy, an official with the progressive organization restated that position.

"More than 380,000 MoveOn.org members have signed petitions supporting a simple principle: the Democratic nominee should be the person who wins the primaries and caucuses," said Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.org. "MoveOn members overwhelmingly endorsed Sanders for president, and we want him to win the most pledged delegates, become the nominee, and become president."

"But superdelegates shouldn't overrule the will of the Democratic grassroots," Wikler added. "If the primary and caucus winner is Hillary Clinton, then Clinton should be the nominee. If it's Bernie Sanders, then Sanders should be the nominee."

A Democratic candidate needs 2,383 total delegates to win the party's nomination. Clinton currently leads Sanders 1,428 to 1,151 among pledged delegates. A source inside the Sanders campaign said they expect to close that gap with gains in states like Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia and Oregon. They anticipate that Clinton will fall short of the needed total by anywhere from 262 to 360 pledged delegates.

At that point, Clinton would have to close the deal with the help of superdelegates. Though she currently has the support of 502 of them -- to Sanders' 38 -- their votes aren't bound. Sanders could convince them to switch sides between now and the convention's first ballot.

Doing so would be difficult, however. For the Sanders strategy to fully succeed, the senator would have to persuade not only party insiders that he should get the nomination without having won a majority of the delegates or popular vote, but also his many supporters who think differently.

"Right now, [Democracy for America] continues to be 100% focused on helping Bernie Sanders secure the pledged delegate lead in the contests ahead. Since 2008, DFA has believed and fought to ensure that the presidential nomination is decided by the grassroots activists who vote for pledged delegates in primaries and caucuses and that's a position we will continue to hold going forward," said Neil Sroka, communications director for the progressive PAC.

Like Democracy for America, many other Sanders supporters have spent part of the primary season arguing that the superdelegate system, as currently constructed, is undemocratic. Maine state Rep. Diane Russell (D), a Sanders backer, is working on an amendment to the state convention rules to direct Maine's superdelegates to vote with the results of the state's popular election. She's also encouraged the Democratic National Committee to do away with superdelegates in future election cycles.

"My goal has always been to ensure a fair, democratic system," she said via email. "I believe that for 2016, Super Delegates should vote in proportion to the popular vote of the state they represent. Here in Maine, that means Bernie Sanders would get the majority. In other states, that would mean Hillary Clinton does. ... Regardless of the candidates -- or my personal preference -- I do not believe the Super Delegates should override the popular vote. That would be undemocratic." 

DFA has believed and fought to ensure that the presidential nomination is decided by the grassroots activists who vote for pledged delegates in primaries and caucuses. Neil Sroka of Democracy for America

Were Russell's suggested changes to the delegate system put in place, Clinton would very likely still win the Democratic nomination. For that reason, among others, the Clinton campaign expressed confidence Wednesday morning that Sanders' push-it-to-the-end strategy wouldn't constitute much of a threat.

Brian Fallon, the Clinton campaign's press secretary, noted that no Democratic presidential candidate in modern history has won the most pledged delegates and lost the nomination.

"They are loath to reverse" the popular vote, he said of superdelegates. "It has never happened before that the superdelegates have swayed the race for someone who has finished second based on pledged delegates."

The Clinton campaign has other reasons to believe that the superdelegates won't desert them. They argue that polling data show Democratic voters see her as a stronger general election candidate -- even if the same data show Sanders doing better in a hypothetical matchup against Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). More importantly, Clinton has institutional ties to the superdelegates that Sanders doesn't enjoy. She's fundraised for them and invested in many of their races for years.

Still, Clinton superdelegates will face heavy pressure in the coming weeks to reconsider. A Sanders supporter created a website originally called "Superdelegate Hit List" -- later changed to "Superdelegate List" -- that makes public their contact information so that people can reach them.

Alice Germond, the former DNC secretary and a longtime party activist, is committed to supporting Clinton as a Virginia superdelegate. In the last couple of weeks, she's been receiving as many as 15 emails a day from Sanders supporters trying to convince her to switch her vote.

"Most of them are not vicious," she said. "They only at times have a tiny bit of edge of threatening, 'Why don't you' and 'you shouldn't' and 'how dare you.' But that comes with the territory."


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