The odds that Hillary Clinton wins the nomination on the backs of superdelegates are extremely low

Bernie Sanders got sixty percent of the votes in the New Hampshire primary, and he got about that percentage of the state’s delegates — 15 to Clinton’s 9.

But it wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that Sanders completely “won” New Hampshire. When you factor in the six superdelegates from New Hampshire who are currently pledged to Clinton, they’re tied 15-15.

If that seems undemocratic, it’s because it is. The Democratic Party (and not the Republican Party) awards extra delegates for Democratic party elders, Democratic members of Congress, Democratic governors and elected members of the Democratic National Committee. There are 712 superdelegates in total, and they can each pledge their support to whomever they please. There are 4,051 regular, or “hard” delegates awarded on the basis of electoral performance. Taken together, that’s 4,763 total delegates, with 2,382 needed to win the nomination and superdelegates making up roughly 16 percent of the total.

The Clintons, via stocklight / Shutterstock

The Clintons, via stocklight / Shutterstock

majority of superdelegates have already pledged to Hillary Clinton — including (go figure) Bill Clinton, who is a superdelegate because he is a former president. She’s currently claiming support from over 360 pledged superdelegates means that she could be nearly 20 percent of the way toward locking up the nomination already with only two (small) states having held their nominating contests.

If Clinton’s current share of superdelegates holds for the rest of the uncommitted superdelegates, she could wind up as many as 685 superdelegates, which would leave Sanders with 27. In this scenario, Sanders would need to win 2,355 of the 4,051 regular delegates (58%) in order to win the nomination. Even if Clinton doesn’t pick up any more superdelegates, Sanders still needs to win 54% of the remaining delegates in order to win the nomination. In other words, it isn’t hard to imagine Sanders winning the popular vote — fairly convincingly — and still losing to Clinton.

However, this scenario is almost certainly not going to play out for two simple reasons — one undemocratic and one democratic.

Superdelegates are allowed to switch sides

If Bernie Sanders’s political revolution really does come, and he is able to translate his success in New Hampshire to other states that aren’t quite as liberal and aren’t quite as white, then he will almost certainly wind up with a more than 24 superdelegates. If Sanders emerges as the clear choice of the Democratic electorate, he will win a greater share of currently unpledged superdelegates, and a number of superdelegates who are currently pledged to Clinton will defect to him.

As it happens, members of the party establishment don’t necessarily endorse members of the establishment; they usually endorse candidates they think will win. If it looks like Sanders is going to win, he will attract endorsements from the same superdelegates who Sanders’s supporters are currently worried could throw the election for Clinton. As NBC’s First Read wrote this morning:

If Sanders does win a majority of the bound delegates, there will be ENORMOUS pressure on the supers to back him. And that pressure could likely lead to many elected supers — perhaps worried about a future Dem primary — to suddenly get cold feet on Clinton and simply promise to support the Dem who wins their district or state.

All this is to say that it is highly unlikely that Clinton wins the nomination without having also won a majority of regular delegates.

Clinton is still the favorite

The real reason why the scenario where Sanders wins the popular vote and loses the primary is so implausible doesn’t have anything to do with superdelegates. It has everything to do with the fact that he is still a massive underdog in the race.

Only two states have voted thus far, and they’re states that Sanders was expected to do well in. Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats are whiter and, more importantly, farther to the left on economic issues than Democrats in the rest of the country — Sanders is very white and very much to the left of his opponent on economic issues. This is why FiveThirtyEight was saying as early as last July that Sanders could win Iowa and New Hampshire, only to lose practically everywhere else.

This being the case, worrying about superdelegates at this point is simply premature. Hillary Clinton may not be inevitable anymore, but she is still the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination — without needing superdelegates to push her over the top.

If Sanders wins or comes close to winning in Nevada or South Carolina, then we’ll talk.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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