Bernie Sanders' crusade against superdelegates could torpedo his 2020 chances

The campaign's efforts after 2016 to minimize the superdelegates' power means they can't help him now — even if they wanted to, after those efforts.
Image: Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Campaigns Across U.S. Ahead Of Super Tuesday
Bernie Sanders talks to reporters in Salt Lake City on March 2, 2020.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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By Michael Conway, former counsel, U.S. House Judiciary Committee

Superdelegates have not historically mattered much in the Democratic primary since they were introduced in 1984; usually the eventual nominee had locked up enough pledged delegates during the primaries that the votes of the superdelegates — which include Democratic members of Congress, Democratic governors and elected officials, former Democratic presidents and Democratic National Committee leadership — were essentially superfluous. But in 2016, after losing the nomination by 389 pledged delegates (those allocated based on the results of caucuses and primaries) and 562 superdelegates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and his supporters sought sweeping changes in the role of the latter.

They ultimately prevailed on one key issue and lost on another — but, in combination, their own changes may result in Sanders being denied the party’s nomination in a brokered convention this summer.

When I served on the Rules Committee of the Democratic National Convention in 2016, the Sanders campaign proposed resolution after resolution to eliminate or curtail the power of Democratic Party elected officials and party leaders in choosing who would be the presidential nominee. Rather than a perfunctory Rules Committee hearing to readopt prior convention protocols, Sanders’ rules committee members engaged in an all-day marathon session, offering repeated resolutions attacking the inclusion of superdelegates, who were nominally providing the votes necessary to secure the nomination of Hillary Clinton in what would have otherwise been a brokered convention. However, without the superdelegates increasing the total number of delegates necessary to secure the win, Clinton still would have won the nomination because she had won a majority of the pledged delegates.

While all of the Sanders campaign’s resolutions were defeated in the Rules Committee in 2016, the impasse that day was resolved by the DNC agreeing to create a task force to address these issues before the 2020 election.

In 2018, the Democratic National Committee then overwhelmingly adopted one of Sanders’ key proposals from 2016: In the 2020 convention, superdelegates will be precluded from participating in the first round of voting for the party’s nominee for president. But while common wisdom in 2020 suggests that party insiders are wary of Sanders’ candidacy, progressive elected officials — including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., as well as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. — have publicly endorsed Sanders. But such superdelegate votes are unavailable to Sanders on the first ballot (or in his ongoing delegate tally) due to his own proposal being adopted in 2018.

Another change — also advanced in 2016 — that would have required all superdelegates’ votes to mirror the primary results in his or her state’s primary election was not adopted in 2018.

The text of Resolution 14 proposing this rule in 2016 stated that the votes of superdelegates in the nominating process “shall, in the aggregate, proportionately reflect the presidential preferences of popular voters in the state or territory to which the reserved delegate belongs.” Under the rejected formula, because Sanders is projected to have won 24 of Nevada’s 36 delegates in 2020, two-thirds of the votes of Nevada-based superdelegates would have automatically been cast for Sanders’ nomination this summer in Milwaukee.

That could have been a potentially awkward result, given that the state’s lieutenant governor, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and two members of Congress have already endorsed Joe Biden, and two DNC members and the state controller endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — and most of them will likely end up certified as superdelegates — but not a single likely superdelegate from the state has endorsed Sanders.

But because no counterpart to Resolution 14 was ultimately approved by the Democratic Party, this year’s superdelegates are free to vote as they please on the second ballot at the convention — which will only become important if, as in 2016, no candidate locks up a majority of the pledged delegates.

Unlike a winner-take-all format, though, delegates in the Democratic primaries are awarded proportionately to all candidates winning 15 percent or more of the popular vote, whether in an election or a caucus format. This process of apportioning the delegates among all candidates reaching that plateau prevents a candidate from rapidly accumulating delegates and, in a multicandidate Democratic primary, a candidate could win a plurality of delegates without achieving the required majority of delegates, necessitating the second ballot and the participation of the superdelegates.

Delegates elected in the state primaries are duty-bound — at least on the first ballot — to vote for the presidential candidate affiliated with their election. If a candidate with pledged delegates ultimately drops out of the race before the convention, the candidate could release those delegates, but is not required to. While state rules vary slightly, if the delegates are released, they can cast their votes for anyone; the 26 delegates awarded to Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, or the seven awarded to Sen. Amy Klobucher, D-Minn. — both of whom dropped out of the race this week — could still cast ballots for them, but they need not cast ballots for Biden, who both former candidates have since endorsed.

On the first round, only the 3,979 pledged Democratic delegates elected in the primaries are allowed to vote on the nomination, and 1,991 delegates are needed to win the presidential nomination on that ballot (a bare majority plus one). But, even if Sanders scores impressive victories on Super Tuesday and in later contests, the likelihood of him securing a full majority of pledged delegates is remote if Biden, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg and Warren surpass the 15 percent threshold for being awarded delegates in a variety of states.

And, unlike in 2016 — when superdelegates had the same voting rights as pledged delegates — even if Sanders were to be close to a majority, he cannot now count on superdelegates to put him over the top on the first ballot.

In a second ballot (or any subsequent round of voting), the 771 unpledged superdelegates are free to vote as they please — but, when added, they increase the total number of voting delegates to 4,750, meaning that a nominee must now obtain 2,376 votes to secure the nomination. Sanders will not be able to count on these superdelegate votes being cast for him; his backers’ efforts didn’t exactly endear the campaign to that voting bloc, and some news reports now suggest that many superdelegates are intent on blocking Sanders’ nomination.

Bottom line, the end result of the Sanders campaign’s effort launched at the 2016 Rules Committee to eliminate or minimize the role of superdelegates in 2020 failed to achieve its full objectives, and may have made its own efforts more difficult this cycle. Worse yet, now it appears increasingly likely that the 771 superdelegates may have the last word on the selection of the nominee to oppose President Donald Trump in the general election — the scenario that wasn’t actually playing out in 2016 when Sanders’ supporters started their efforts.