A guest post by Mark Myers and Jennifer Nix
In 2008, a term known previously only to Democratic Party insiders went viral. This was the first time the American public heard about the role of “superdelegates,” even though the party reformed its nomination process for the 1984 race to include their input.
As the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the nomination heated up, we founded the Superdelegate Transparency Project to cut through the fog these “supers” create. The project garnered volunteers from all over the country and tracked every congressional district’s results and whether superdelegates supported the candidate voted for by constituents.
We hoped transparency would encourage fair play and party unity going forward. Yet in 2016, the approximately 719 superdelegates are playing an outsize and even more divisive role. While we are on different sides of what is becoming a very acrimonious contest, we call for an immediate commitment from party leaders to reform our nomination process, because without that, we will likely see the end of the current Democratic coalition.
— Mark Myers and Jennifer Nix
I voted for Hillary Clinton in the Florida primary. But whether or not Clinton emerges as the nominee, the Democratic Party must take a hard look at the role the superdelegates play in the nomination so millions of grassroots Democrats potentially supporting insurgent candidates feel the process is conducted on a level playing field.
In 2008, the superdelegates had a smaller impact than we see today. After the first four primaries, Clinton’s delegate count was buoyed by about 200 superdelegate endorsements to approximately 100 for Obama.
In 2016, the superdelegates are playing a much more pronounced role. By October 2015, the Clinton campaign boasted support from approximately 500 (nearly 70 percent) of the superdelegates. Campaigns know early wins drive perception of the candidates. So we cannot pretend that reporting in 2015 that Clinton had secured 20 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination before any votes were cast had no effect on the perception of both Clinton and Bernie Sanders. This artificial narrative, or what Susan Estrich (campaign manager for Michael Dukakis in 1988) has called the “superdelegate primary,” is a form of suppression that discourages voting, donations and grassroots engagement.
Beyond their early influence, superdelegates (a group whose power balance tilts white when compared to Democratic voters) have distorted the optics in the wake of positive early results for Sanders. For instance, after Sanders won by 22 percentage points in New Hampshire, NPR ran the headline “How Hillary Clinton might actually win in N.H., even though she lost big.”
Back in 2008, Obama’s lead among pledged delegates burned off the fog created by the superdelegates as most defected from Clinton. Such clarity has proven elusive in 2016.
MSNBC, for example, reported on March 17 that Sanders needed to win approximately 65 percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination — inaccurately treating superdelegate endorsements as immutably won delegates. A more accurate reporting of the delegate math would recognize that Sanders needed a more modest 58 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to overtake Clinton in that category.
The Sanders campaign has now joined in the superdelegate game, suggesting that the supers should consider elevating him to the nomination even if he loses among pledged delegates — potentially setting up a second superdelegate primary of the cycle that would run throughout June and July.
The overall impact of the superdelegates invites a large portion of the party to feel disenfranchised. Considering the current acrimony, I believe it is imperative to envision a path toward reconciliation. Reforming the superdelegate system would recognize some valid grievances with how this race has unfolded.
— Mark Myers
I plan to vote for Bernie Sanders in California and believe a primary race this close should run its full course. I want the party to which I’ve belonged for 32 years to care about what nearly half of us — the left wing of the party — are showing up to say.
I bristle at a centrist establishment funded by banks and multinational corporations telling me they know best, stacking the delegate-count deck and then trying to wrap up the nomination process early. Democrats deserve a fair nomination process in which all of us get to cast a meaningful vote, and will be well served by an accurate snapshot of the party’s make-up.
As the establishment’s candidate in both 2008 and 2016, Hillary Clinton’s gaming of superdelegates before any citizen votes were cast has fractured the Democratic coalition. Let me be clear: Clinton didn’t break any rules, as the party seems to have been deliberately nebulous about how superdelegates can behave. The bully tactic of using this nebulosity to her advantage, however — by claiming she’d locked down the vast majority of the superdelegates as of October 2015, long before any votes were cast — created a false and unfair perception of her inevitability even as it tore the party in two.
If this early gamesmanship combined with the media complicity and bias (by including superdelegates in delegate counts before primaries and caucuses begin) is allowed to continue, we risk the left wing exiting the party.
Clinton, of course, knows media bias can cut for or against such gamesmanship. She saw her inevitability disintegrate as Obama racked up delegates and her superdelegates jumped her ship. Clinton also watched as journalists nearly unilaterally became smitten with Obama. This year she won what is essentially a corporate media primary, which helps to push the establishment narrative pressuring Sanders to give up even as he continues to win. Independent media have reported on the — by turns — minuscule and derisive coverage the Sanders campaign receives from some media. As a former producer for National Public Radio’s “On the Media” and a media-reform activist, I recognize bias most obviously in the initial blackout of the Sanders campaign, and the “stealth editing” admitted by the New York Times in the initial media blackout of the Sanders campaign. More recently, the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot wrote that Sanders gets no respect from the media and the “Democratic establishment has done far more