Can Bernie Win Over the Establishment?

Fans of the presidential candidate, and his campaign, hope to reach the party elite.

Rebecca Cook / Reuters

As conservatives revolt against the Republican establishment, Democrats are grappling with their own divisions. At least some progressive voters fear that party elites are lining up to coronate Hillary Clinton, an anxiety that is increasingly bubbling up and spilling over into public view. The concern is playing out in a tug-of-war over superdelegates, a pool of influential Democrats largely made up of elected officials and party leaders who can play a role in selecting the presidential nominee and support any candidate they want.

Far more Democratic superdelegates have vowed to support Clinton than Bernie Sanders. Fearful that the deck is stacked against their candidate, some Sanders supporters have launched a grassroots campaign urging superdelegates to back whoever wins the popular vote. The Sanders campaign, meanwhile, is telegraphing optimism that superdelegates will eventually side with their candidate in greater numbers, though achieving that aim won’t be an easy task. “It’s a big challenge not to be the establishment candidate in the race when you’re appealing to the establishment,” Sanders senior strategist Tad Devine says, noting that the campaign hopes to point to a variety of factors, including primary-contest momentum and an argument that the Vermont senator would fare well in the general election, to make the case.

In the minds of many Sanders supporters, superdelegates are proof of a rigged system. In reality, concern that Democratic elites will run away with the presidential nomination is very likely overblown. Superdelegates aren’t bound by the popular vote, but they tend to line up behind whoever amasses the most pledged delegates, party representatives who back candidates based on the results of a primary or caucus. If the race is extremely close, however, superdelegates could effectively act as a tie-breaker. And if voters believe that the party has sabotaged their favorite candidate, they could be angry enough to sit out the general election, whether or not the perception has much basis in reality. That could hurt the party’s odds of winning the White House in 2016 and deepen the rift on display in the midst of an increasingly contentious primary fight.

Sanders faces a steep uphill primary battle, but if he were able to alter the trajectory of the race, superdelegates could defect to his campaign. Superdelegates can still switch their allegiances, and Democratic Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, a superdelegate who has endorsed Sanders, says that at least some superdelegates in Congress have already expressed regret at making up their minds so early on. “It’s now a competitive race with an opportunity to win,” Grijalva says. “Nobody factored that in, [and they] locked themselves into a commitment that they’re having a very difficult time getting out of. He added: “The people in the party that read tea leaves have done a poor job in this election of reading the tea leaves. I think it was presumed that this would be an anointment process that we were going to go through and it would be over. Now that it’s not, people that I think would have been more thorough in looking at everything are wishing they had that chance again.”

For now, nothing is set in stone. The 2008 primary election demonstrated how superdelegates can and do gravitate toward whichever candidate appears to have a popular mandate. Clinton initially held a strong superdelegate lead over Barack Obama. But as Obama’s candidacy gained momentum, superdelegates opted to back his candidacy in increasingly larger numbers. “By definition, we’re talking about political professionals. They would go against the will of the voters at their own peril,” says Elaine Kamarck, a superdelegate supporting Clinton and the author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates.

Still, it won’t be easy for Sanders to sway superdelegates. The Clinton campaign has focused on amassing a pledged-delegate lead, a strategy that has so far proved extremely successful. At this point in the race, Clinton holds a commanding lead in both pledged and superdelegates. “While we’re proud of the support for Hillary Clinton from Democratic governors, senators, and other leaders who have been working for our party,” Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the campaign says, “our strategy continues to be maintaining our strong lead with pledged delegates.” Earlier this month, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook emphasized that the campaign plans to build on that pledged-delegate “lead even further making it increasingly difficult and eventually mathematically impossible for Sen. Sanders to catch up.” As long as it holds, superdelegates are virtually certain to stand by the Clinton campaign.

Acutely aware of the contentious fight for the nomination, at least some superdelegates are opting to sit on the sidelines until the results of the primary election more clearly point to a popular-vote winner. “I don’t think it would be fair to either candidate to come out and publicly pledge support for either just yet,” said Brandon Dillon, a superdelegate and chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. “We have a tough election to win in November … and making sure we can pull all elements of the party back together after the primary is the only thing I care about.”

In the meantime, the best laid plans of Sanders supporters may go awry. “Sanders supporters’ courtship of Clinton superdelegates may be backfiring,” Reuters reported in February, chronicling how some superdelegates have felt harassed by Sanders supporters who were unaffiliated with the campaign but had contacted them. As the primary process drags on, it’s in the interest of the Democratic Party to do whatever it can to make sure that the current rift between progressives and moderates does not widen amid animosity or a sense of disenchantment on either side.

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