Dear Shaun King, the superdelegates won’t be throwing the election

Following Bernie Sanders’s win in the New Hampshire primary last month, his supporters noticed that his win wasn’t really a “win.” While he took home 15 of the state’s 24 pledged delegates, Hillary Clinton had already won the support of six superdelegates from the state, meaning that even though Sanders won the state by roughly twenty points, the delegate count resulted in a tie.

This prompted some earlier-than-usual handwringing from the Democratic electorate over the party’s superdelegate system, which was the subject of much debate during the 2008 race, as well. Is it really fair that party insiders and elected officials account for over fifteen percent of the delegates at the convention? Does it make sense for them to be completely unaccountable to the voters? Are they going to throw the election for Clinton???

No, they almost certainly aren’t.

As I wrote last month, while superdelegates are in theory undemocratic and silly, in practice they aren’t at all likely to decide anything. Being the self-interested individuals that they are, they follow the leader in hopes of currying favor with them. Hillary Clinton currently enjoys a massive lead among superdelegates because she is the prohibitive favorite to win a solid majority of pledged delegates. If Bernie Sanders surged and took a majority of the pledged delegates, most of the superdelegates would flip. There is basically no scenario in which Sanders wins more pledged delegates than Clinton and loses the nomination.

Again, just because superdelegates almost certainly aren’t going to decide the Democratic race doesn’t mean they make sense. They represent a holdover from the pre-primary days of picking party nominees in smoke-filled rooms, and in theory they act as a check against the voters if the Party really does want to decide. If a team of democratic theorists were to come up with a primary system from scratch, the chances are pretty good that the system they came up with wouldn’t include anything that resembled superdelegates. Then again, if we let teams of democratic theorists build our political institutions from scratch, we’d also have automatic voter registration, proportional representation and ranked-choice voting. Our institutions are path-dependent. We find ways to make them work as best they can.

Yesterday, however, a full month after this debate was more or less wrapped up, New York Daily News columnist Shaun King decided to raise the issue once again — and do so in deeply irresponsible terms. In his telling, not only are superdelegates undemocratic and silly, they are an engine of fraud. As he wrote:

Shaun King (right) and Crowdrise founder Robert Wolfe (left), via Geoff Livingston / Flickr

Shaun King (right) and Crowdrise founder Robert Wolfe (left), via Geoff Livingston / Flickr

Here’s where it begins to border fraud.

The super-delegates, which again are just individual people chosen by established party leaders, currently represent 41.8 of the total delegates the candidates have received. And again, 95.3% of these 473 people have chosen Clinton as their candidate.

So, even though 7 million have voted, 473 people that nearly none of us know, get to account for 41.8% of the delegates.

If you’re going to call foul on the superdelegate system, it helps to know who superdelegates actually are. Far from being “just individual people chosen by established party leaders,” there actually is some method to this madness. Superdelegates aren’t just some random people that Debbie Wasserman Schultz picked out of a crowd on the condition that they do her bidding; they include every Democratic member of Congress, every Democratic governor and every elected member of the Democratic National Committee. They aren’t all well-known, but they are knowable. Most of them are theoretically accountable to an electorate of some kind. This isn’t to defend the system; it’s simply to define terms.

Furthermore, the number of superdelegates who have publicly stated their support may equal 41.8% of the total delegates allocated thus far, as King laments, but this is a gross misrepresentation of how much influence they’ll actually have at the convention. There are 712 superdelegates, while 4,051 pledged delegates will be allocated over the course of the primary campaign. Superdelegates account for about 16 (as in, much less than 42) percent of the total number of delegates at the convention. Again, this doesn’t mean that the level of influence they have makes sense; it’s simply to pin down how much influence they actually have.

However, what makes King’s post particularly problematic isn’t his misrepresentation of who superdelegates are and the level of influence they will wield at the convention; it’s his implication that they are evidence of a rigged, fraudulent election. Take a passage like this:

These 473 political insiders are, in essence, stuffing the ballot boxes to make sure their candidate wins in spite of how people actually vote. Of course, they don’t call it that, but that’s exactly what’s happening here.

Let me push this notion of how the superdelegate system is simply a politically correct way to stuff the ballot boxes and thwart the will of the people.

Theoretically this is what could happen down the road, but in practice this has never happened and probably never will happen. In 2008, Hillary Clinton had a similar (albeit smaller) lead in superdelegates at this stage in the primary. Watch what happened as it became increasingly clear that then-Senator Obama was going to win the majority of pledged delegates:

2008 superdelegate count over time, via FiveThirtyEight

2008 superdelegate count over time, via FiveThirtyEight

Instead of bothering to check recent history to see if the scenario he’s worried about has ever played out in the past, King simply asserted that the superdelegates can and will intervene on behalf of Clinton in the event of an impending Sanders win. This serves no purpose other than to delegitimize a prospective Clinton victory, giving Sanders supporters a (bad) reason to flip a table and sit out in November if their preferred candidate doesn’t win the nomination.

I like Bernie. I voted for Bernie. I’m also under no illusions about his chances of winning, and I’m not about to pretend that a Clinton victory would be illegitimate. The debate over superdelegates happened a month ago; it’s over. Let it go.


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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