The Superdelegate Problem

Okay, so Bernie Sanders destroyed Hillary Clinton in Washington State’s caucuses last weekend. He still trails Clinton by nearly 300 “earned” delegates (those allocated on the basis of actual voters, expressed in primaries or caucuses), and his backers are convinced he can close that gap with several major states among the 22 states remaining. (I spelled out the math as to why that in itself might be difficult in this article, but that’s a separate issue.)

The real problem for Sanders is the superdelegates.

The Democratic Party allocates 4,051 delegates to the primaries and caucuses, and Clinton or Sanders needs 2,384 – a simple majority – to win the party’s nomination. The remaining 715 delegates are “superdelegates,” mostly elected officials or Democratic National Committee members, and they’re overwhelmingly supporting Clinton. Nationally, the current count is that 473 have publicly announced their support for Clinton, 209 are unannounced (including ten positions for which the superdelegate hasn’t been named yet), one poor soul is wed to Martin O’Malley, and only 32 are currently supporting Sanders.

Despite Sanders’ overwhelming victory here, Washington State’s superdelegates are even more lopsided in their support for Clinton. Not one of Washington’s 17 superdelegates is supporting Sanders; every single one is either committed to Clinton or hasn’t announced a choice.

Here are Washington’s superdelegates, with their choices to date:

Sen. Maria Cantwell (Clinton)
Ed Cote, Democratic National Committee [DNC] (uncommitted)
Rep. Suzan DelBene (Clinton)
Rep. Denny Heck (Clinton)
Gov. Jay Inslee (Clinton)
Rep. Derek Kilmer (Clinton)
Rep. Rick Larsen (Clinton)
Juanita Luiz, DNC (uncommitted)
Sharon Mast, DNC (uncommitted)
Rep. Jim McDermott (Clinton)
David McDonald, DNC (uncommitted)
Sen. Patty Murray (Clinton)
Rion Ramirez, DNC (Clinton)
Jaxon Ravens, DNC (uncommitted)
Valerie Brady Rongey, DNC (uncommitted)
Rep. Adam Smith (Clinton)
Lona Wilbur, DNC (uncommitted)

There you have it. If the superdelegates were to vote in proportion to how their constituents voted. 13 of these 17 delegates would be in Sanders’ corner. Instead, the ten public office holders – Gov. Inslee, both senators, and all seven Democratic US representatives, including Seattle’s own alleged progressive champion Jim McDermott, have signed on for Team Clinton. Of the seven DNC members, six are uncommitted and one, Rion Ramirez, has announced for Clinton.

This is an institutional issue. The elected officials all have things they want from the party – fundraising resources and connections, committee assignments, help with their ambitions. The party should be neutral in a contested primary like this, but functionally, it’s not. Hillary Clinton has fundraised in the past for several of these officials, especially Sens. Murray and Cantwell, who in turn exert influence on the state party. Clinton has also worked hard over the years, dating even before her work on the Senate Armed Services Committee, to start wars and win contracts for Boeing, and that still matters to these folks. And that’s not even counting the loyalty some of them still have to Clinton’s ex-president husband. The DNC? That’s the same body that at every turn has skewed the nomination process in Clinton’s favor. It would take a lot for the unannounced ones to break for Sanders.

This is the pattern that repeats itself in every state. None of these superdelegates are worried about being accountable to voters who disagree with their choice; none of the public officeholders are concerned that supporting Clinton will result, Tea Party style, in a primary challenge that will cost them their jobs. Until they have to start worrying about that, there’s no reason for them to switch allegiance other than fairness. And, you know, the good of the party and the country. But this is politics – fairness is a marketing gimmick, not a principle.

Sanders supporters, here and around the country, are deluging superdelegates with demands that they change their votes. As well they should. If they don’t, Clinton wins the nomination, easily. And the higher you go in the Democratic Party, the fewer people you find that agree with or even understand Sanders’ populist message. It’s hard to envision any scenario where a majority of these hacks will turn away from their corporate gravy trains, and support Sanders instead. Democracy? Good luck with that.

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