Is the Democratic Race Really Over?

Bernie Sanders’s campaign and supporters are furious about declarations that Hillary Clinton is the presumptive nominee, but their arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

When the moment came, it arrived as anti-climax.

After weeks of buildup for a decisive June 7 primary that might crown Hillary Clinton the Democratic candidate—or give Bernie Sanders another boost to keep going—the Associated Press suddenly and quietly announced Monday night that Clinton had accrued enough delegates, both pledged and superdelegates, to clinch the nomination.

The announcement set off howls of protest from Bernie Sanders, his campaign, and his supporters. They were caught off guard, having geared up to lodge the same protests Tuesday evening. The expected scenario involved the major networks and AP calling the race before the California polls closed this evening. The anger (read through the replies to The Atlantic’s tweet announcing the news to get a sense of it) points to the challenge Clinton faces in uniting the Democratic Party.

Or does it?

By several metrics, both quantitative and qualitative, Clinton seems to be in fairly good stead with her party. Bernie backers are unusually enthusiastic and motivated, but you have to squint pretty hard to see any real threat to Clinton. Insofar as Clinton faces a challenge, it’s in winning over left-leaning independents who have backed Sanders. That will be important to her chances in a general election, but it’s less of an intramural Democratic Party issue.

The numbers tell the story: Clinton has won more pledged delegates than Sanders. She’s won the commitments of more superdelegates than he has. (More on that in a bit.) She’s won more state contests than he has.

As Nate Silver points out, Clinton won the strictly Democratic vote in all but three primaries and caucuses, while Sanders won the independents in all but three. In other words, Democrats have already coalesced around Clinton. One of Sanders’s great accomplishments has been bringing those non-party members into the process. How many of them will back Clinton in a general election? Their support could be the difference between a comfortable cruise over Donald Trump and a nailbiter or loss on November 8. The numbers have varied a little bit, and as the last stretch of the primaries neared, Clinton’s negatives soared with Sanders backers. Polls have shown perhaps a quarter of Sanders voters saying they won’t back Clinton. (A recent MTV poll found that only 57 percent of Millennial Sanders backers would pull the lever for her, though.) Most Democrats also feel the primary process was fair.

But as Philip Bump has shown, more Clinton voters were threatening to vote for John McCain in 2008 than Sanders supporters are threatening to defect to Trump this time around. Past experience suggests that after acrimonious primaries, likeminded voters generally come back together. This year could be an outlier, but the track record warns against assuming it is. Clinton also benefits from running against Donald Trump, who is generally unpalatable to the people who back Sanders—despite the various anecdotal suggestions that there’s a sizable Sanders-Trump constituency.

The Sanders campaign’s case for continuing on is a two-part argument. The first is that those superdelegates aren’t bound by their commitments to Clinton so far, and they could change their mind before the Democratic National Convention in July. The second is that Sanders will appeal to those superdelegates to abandon Clinton, on the basis that head-to-head polls show him performing better against Trump than Clinton does.

There was a time when those head-to-head polls could be easily dismissed as too early. That’s less true now. But given that Clinton still leads Trump, the electability argument is less compelling. It’s also somewhat un-democratic. Sanders wants to convince superdelegates that they should circumvent the desires of the majority of Democratic voters across the country and hand the nomination to him. (I'm old enough to remember when Sanders thought that superdelegates were “problematic” and should vote according to the preferences of their home states. Strangely, now that Clinton has won more states, he’s not making that case.) You may recall this as the same argument that Republicans like Ted Cruz and John Kasich were making ahead of Donald Trump winning the nomination: They argued that even though Trump had won far more votes, Republican delegates should give one of them the nomination because Trump couldn’t win a general election. We know how that turned out. Republican voters roundly rejected that as un-democratic, and Trump quickly cleared the field.

Mass defection is particularly unlikely because so many superdelegates (though not Sanders, who is one himself) are longtime party people and therefore close to the Clintons. It’s possible to imagine a scenario in which they abandon Clinton for Sanders, but it would probably require (at the very least) Clinton being indicted. You can call that a rigged system, or you can call that Clinton putting in the time to cultivate connections.

It’s even harder to imagine a mass superdelegate defection given the signs that Democratic Party officials are already lining up behind Clinton. On Monday, before the AP’s delegate count, The New York Times had already reported that President Obama was eager to start campaigning on her behalf. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Californian, quickly endorsed Clinton on the heels of the AP announcement. Even Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, a Sanders endorser, suggested Tuesday that he was ready to get in line. “We have to be unified to take on Trump. And that unity is going to begin today as soon as the polls close,” he said.

Clinton apparently did not talk to Sanders after the AP call, but she says she plans to call him tonight. Sanders says he’ll return home to Vermont after Tuesday’s races and assess the race. The only remaining Democratic nomination contest after Tuesday is the June 14 District of Columbia primary.

Sanders fans advance a handful of other arguments for why Clinton should not be deemed the presumptive nominee. One, offered by Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs, is that the Democratic National Committee says superdelegates shouldn’t be counted yet. But the superdelegate results are, as discussed, effectively a forgone conclusion, and media outlets like the AP are in no way beholden to seeing things from the perspective of the DNC—an organization Sanders briefly sued a couple months ago—as ought to be obvious. Another argument is that the media has decided to throw the election to Clinton, which requires willful blindness to the decades-long animosity between Hillary Clinton and the press. Just this week, reporters have been blasting her for not giving press conferences. A third is that it’s somehow unfair for the AP to count delegates, because announcing the result disenfranchises Californians by making their votes today irrelevant. Golden State voters seldom have much role in a primary anyway, though, and given the Democratic Party’s rules for proportional allocation of delegates, the California result would have put Clinton over the top anyway. (Well, apart from the superdelegates, but as we’ve discussed...)

“There’s nothing to concede,” Sanders told KTVU Monday night. And ironically, he’s right. Clinton will have to work hard to win over Sanders backers, but there’s no longer any nomination battle for him to contest.