What makes someone a party’s presumptive nominee? The fight over the AP’s announcement that Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination says more about how people read the news than about how the media covers it.
A quick recap: It was an anticlimactic week for many Democrats. Ahead of Tuesday’s primaries in California, New Jersey, Montana, New Mexico, and the Dakotas, the AP announced that Hillary Clinton’s delegate count had passed the number required to win the nomination: 2,382. By the AP’s count, she had 2,383. Bernie supporters cried foul, charging that the AP was somehow under Clinton control. Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, wrote in an email to supporters late Monday night that “we should let the voters decide who they want the Democratic nominee to be rather than having the media decide for them.”
The AP’s executive editor, Kathleen Carroll, responded in a simple statement defending her organization’s methods:
AP concluded that Hillary Clinton had enough delegates to clinch the nomination after a painstaking but very straightforward exercise.
The organization’s standing policy is to publish their findings whenever a candidate passes that mark. Not announcing Clinton’s delegate count because of its possible effects on an election would have violated that code.
Even Clinton was tentative about the announcement—her first public statement afterwards read as a conscious effort to mitigate the potential for low voter turnout, not triumphalist: “We have six elections tomorrow, and we’re going to fight hard for every single vote, especially right here in California,” she told supporters in Long Beach. As it happened, Clinton won in the biggest states. Her current delegate total is 2,780, according to the AP.
Even though the counts are now clear on both sides, the question remains: Does the status of “presumptive nominee” and the way it’s awarded threaten the integrity of the modern presidential primary in an age when many Americans likely don’t remember the last truly contested convention?
There are two main ways for candidates to become their party’s presumptive nominee, and both have happened in 2016. Donald Trump earned the status by process of elimination when his final opponents, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, bowed out after the Indiana primary and left him the last contender standing. This didn’t leave much room for squabbling over whether the media granted him the label rightly.
Clinton’s method was winning the votes. Even though this is fairly straightforward—Democrats have 4765 delegates, and the nomination goes to whomever gets more than half of those votes—it leaves room for protest because some of those are unpledged “superdelegates.” Going into Tuesday’s primary, these accounted for 571 of Hillary’s total, according to the AP. Sanders supporters argue that because any or all of these delegates have the right to change their affiliation right up to the convention, they shouldn’t be counted. Even if they report that they “unequivocally” are going to vote Clinton in July, they shouldn’t contribute to her presumptive status.
“Presumptive,” though, simply means “overwhelmingly likely.” As the writer William Safire details, “presumptive nominee” comes to American politics by way of an outmoded British monarchical legal tradition in which the “heir presumptive” was designated to be distinct from the “heir apparent.” The latter was first in line for the throne by being the monarch’s first-born, and the former by being the eldest sibling or other relation to a childless monarch. That’s why the term may sound stilted to American ears.
Presumptivity is not a binary status; it’s a spectrum. If AP’s count had shown Clinton with 2,381 on the eve of June 7, the organization would not have made the announcement it did. Nonetheless, the odds that Clinton would have failed to cross the delegate threshold from that position are functionally zero. It’s unthinkable that she would have failed to pick up even a single pledged delegate.
So it would not have been unfair or wrong for the AP and the rest of the media to look at the numbers and start talking about Hillary as though she were going to be the nominee much earlier. As early as May 2nd, even before Trump had vanquished his last Republican rivals, Clinton had to win just 19 percent of the pledged delegates in the remaining primaries, and Bernie 81 percent, in a tight race that was trending her way.
If the Sanders camp truly wants to reserve use of the term until every doubt is gone, then it should advocate that people never use it. Even post-convention, a party could put forth a replacement if the nominee dropped out or died. Stranger things have happened: In 1872, the Democratic presidential nominee Horace Greeley died between the popular vote and the electoral-college vote, which might have started a political mess if he hadn’t gotten roundly beaten at the polls by Ulysses S. Grant.
Still, even though outlets began predicting Bernie’s defeat early on during this primary season, designating Clinton “the presumptive nominee” would have been a step too far. Journalistic institutions live by policies. The use of language like “presumptive” should have a certain threshold attached to it, precisely for the reasons Sanders’s camp cited: The media is influential in American politics.
Smart readers, though, don’t have to think by as lawyerly a code as their news sources write by; they can think of presumptivity as a spectrum, rather than a binary. As a candidate’s victory gets more likely, voters should consider him or her more presumptive, and they should also understand why media organizations can’t use that language.
In this case, citizens had every reason to presume Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee before the AP announced anything.