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Could Unelected Superdelegates Give Clinton the Nomination Even If Sanders Wins the Primaries?

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With Bernie Sanders’ double-digit victory over Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary and near tie with her in last week’s Iowa caucuses, it would seem that the race for the Democratic nomination would be neck and neck. But that is not the case. In New Hampshire, Sanders trounced Clinton 60 to 38 percent—but they split the delegates evenly thanks to unelected superdelegates siding with the former secretary of state. Overall, Clinton sits far ahead of Sanders when you factor in these superdelegates—the congressmen, senators, governors and other elected officials who often represent the Democratic Party elite. We speak to Duke professor David Rohde and Matt Karp, assistant professor of history at Princeton University and contributing editor at JacobinMag.com.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: With Bernie Sanders’ double-digit victory over Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary and nearly tying her in last week’s Iowa caucuses, it would seem that the race for the Democratic nomination would be neck and neck. But that is not the case. In New Hampshire, Sanders trounced Clinton 60 to 38 percent, but they split the delegates evenly, thanks to unelected superdelegates siding with the former secretary of state.

Overall, Clinton sits far ahead of Sanders when you factor in these superdelegates—the congressmen, senators, governors and other elected officials who often represent the Democratic Party elite. Because superdelegates are free to support any candidate, independent of election results, they are often wooed by and align with candidates very early in the campaign season. As early as August of last year, months before the first ballot would be cast, the Clinton campaign had reported a superdelegate count of more than 400 out of an available 712. At a Democratic National Committee meeting in September last year, Bernie Sanders addressed the issue of swaying Clinton superdelegates.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: In terms of superdelegates, let me say this. The people in here are smart people; they’re not dummies. They want to see a Democrat win the White House. And I understand that, you know, Secretary Clinton’s people have been talking to these folks for a very, very long time, so she has a huge advantage over us in that respect—not to say that, for a lot of people, [inaudible]. But I think as our campaign progresses, as people see us do better and better, you’re going to see a lot of superdelegates—I just met with one as I was walking in 10 minutes ago who said, “Well, you swayed me. I’m on your side now.” I think you’re going to see that. So, it’s one thing for people to say, “Well, you know, I’m with the secretary today.” We’ll see where people will be three months from now.

AMY GOODMAN: The Democratic Party implemented the superdelegate system in the early '80s to try to balance the wishes of rank-and-file voters with the party's need to nominate electable candidates, they said. The critics of the superdelegates’ role in the nominating process say that it works against insurgent candidates—well, like Bernie Sanders—and only serves to ensure that establishment candidates stay in power. And Sanders’ supporters worry that despite his early success at the polls, the election might be decided in the back room rather than the voting booth.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. David Rohde is with us, professor of political science at Duke University. He’s co-author of a number of books on every national election since 1980. And Matt Karp joins us, assistant professor of history at Princeton University and contributing editor at JacobinMag.com. His most recent article there is “The War on Bernie Sanders.”

And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Rohde, let’s begin with you. Explain how the system works. People might be floored when they hear the 60-to-38 trouncing in New Hampshire that took place, but that Clinton came away with the same number of delegates as Bernie Sanders. How exactly does it work?

DAVID ROHDE: Well, it works in different ways in every state. And either the state government or the state parties decide what framework to use. So sometimes delegates are allocated by the showing of candidates within each congressional district. Sometimes they’re allocated proportionally based on statewide totals. Sometimes it’s a combination of those two things. So it’s going to vary from one state to another.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Rohde, could you explain why the Democratic Party came up with the superdelegate system and whether the Republican Party follows the same system?

DAVID ROHDE: Let me take the second part first. The Republicans have—do have some superdelegates, but it’s—I believe the number is three per state. So it’s not very important. It’s for the national party representatives from the state.

The reason that the Democrats adopted the superdelegate plan was really because of the possibility of insurgent candidates, not for their own sake, but insurgent candidates who might not be successful in general elections. So it doesn’t do the party a lot of good to nominate a candidate that reflects the wishes of the party and then to go on and lose the general election. And the poster child for this, of course, was George McGovern, and that—who was an insurgent candidate, won out against the party establishment and then got beaten by 20 points in the national election in a gigantic landslide.

So, the Hunt Commission, the commission that was looking at various aspects of the way the party was organized, after the 1980 election, thought that having superdelegates—and they—in the Democratic Party, they are the members of the National Committee, of which there are a little more than 400, Democratic members of the U.S. House, Democratic members of the U.S. Senate and Democratic governors. And that adds up to 712. And the Hunt Commission thought that having those elected officials play a part in choosing the nominee would be a partial balance that would give more weight to the considerations of electability than might otherwise be placed by the delegates that were elected in the primaries and caucuses.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Professor Rohde, explain exactly how it works. I remember when Biden was weighing whether he was going to get in. All the talk in the Clinton campaign was about how many superdelegates she had secured, which was a way to say, you know, “You’ve already lost, so you shouldn’t get in.” But what does it mean to secure a superdelegate? They can change their mind at any point, right?

DAVID ROHDE: That’s right. That’s exactly the point. The other thing to consider—I’ll come back to that point in a second. But the other thing to consider is that 700 sounds like a large number, but there are about 4,800 Democratic convention delegates, so the superdelegates are about 15 percent of the total. That’s surely not trivial, but it’s also not completely determinative of the outcome.

And the other part is what you mentioned, that these people are not committed in the same sense that delegates elected in the primaries and caucuses are committed. So, it’s perfectly within the rules for a superdelegate to say today, “I’m for candidate X,” and then tomorrow say, “I’m for candidate Y,” and to switch—even switch back and forth during the campaign. And indeed, that was part of the idea, that these people would be sensitive to the changing tides that would happen during a campaign.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Rohde, so could you explain, is it possible for Bernie Sanders to win the popular vote, win the largest number of regular delegates, and still lose the party nomination?

DAVID ROHDE: Oh, surely. It is possible. I don’t think it’s very likely. I mean, it’s funny, as I’ve had this kind of conversation eight years ago, when Obama and Clinton were facing off, talking to people from the media. And the reality is that, especially when there are only two candidates, the likelihood is that this is going to be settled long before the convention happens. And so, we’re not going to go down to the wire and have the superdelegates decide the outcome. It’s possible that it will happen, but it’s extremely unlikely, I think. I think we’ll know who the nominee is within six, eight weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Matt Karp, you say that the Democratic Party elite has thrown its full weight behind Hillary Clinton. How is this reflected in superdelegates? And do you think—how do you see this as any different than when Barack Obama first announced he was running for president and started the primary caucus process?

MATT KARP: Well, I think it’s very different. I think if you sort of zoom out and look at how the Sanders campaign compares to previous sort of insurgent Democratic campaigns in recent memory, I think there are three ways that it really diverges. First, Sanders is ideologically significantly to the left of Clinton and of, in some ways, the mainstream of the elected Democratic Party at least—not just, you know, one tick, but I think his rejection of the sort of New Democrat approach—business-friendly economics—and an embrace of a kind of older populism is really a distinct break and something that we haven’t seen from another candidate in this position, you know, since probably Jesse Jackson.

Second, I think—

AMY GOODMAN: Who he worked with.

MATT KARP: Who he worked with, exactly.

Second, Sanders has won a lot more popular support than a lot of sort of underdog candidates at this point, if you’re thinking about his historic donor base, which, you know, has three times the number of people that Obama—donors that Obama had recorded up until this point. And, you know, he’s done better in the early states than Obama has done—than Obama even had done. And in the national polls, he has 37 percent of the vote, which is higher than Obama. Of course, Obama was running against John Edwards, too. But Sanders has done really well.

And the third thing then is the sort of total absence of support from the party, which is not at all comparable to Obama or any previous sort of underdog candidate at this point. I mean, you mentioned the over 350 superdelegates who had committed to Clinton. And when the Associated Press did the survey of superdelegates in November, they found eight superdelegates who were committed to Sanders, and of those, fully one-eighth were Bernie Sanders. You know, as a senator, he is a superdelegate. So, 13 percent of his superdelegate coalition is himself. And this is really striking. I mean, very—Obama had over 60 superdelegates at this point in his camp. Bill Richardson had 25 superdelegates in his camp at this point.

So, those three factors, and a candidate who comes ideologically—makes an ideological break with the party, who has done really well sort of from the bottom up in terms of winning popular support, and has virtually zero backing within the party, create a situation that I think is going to put the system to the test in a way that the 2008 campaign didn’t necessarily do.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Karp, one of the things that you point out in your piece is that the attack on Sanders extends far beyond the Democratic Party and also includes the media. And indeed, the Tyndall Report, which tracks the flagship nightly news programs on NBC, CBS and ABC, revealed this blackout, saying that in 2015, of the 261 minutes ABC News devoted to the campaign, Trump got 81 minutes, while Sanders got 20 seconds.

MATT KARP: Wow. Yeah, that’s a really striking disparity. I mean, I think it’s clear that not just in terms of party officials, but in terms of the sort of various actors in what I think political scientists have described as the “invisible primary,” both in terms of media elites, big donors, you know, the leadership—not necessarily the base, but the leadership—of a lot of unions and other sort of Democratic Party-aligned groups, you know—and you see it—and it’s not always that invisible, if you look at the op-ed pages of major newspapers, where, you know, a lot of people have sort of mounted a kind of a consolidated effort, I think, very clearly, from Paul Krugman to Ezra Klein—you know, these are liberals, these are not necessarily even conservative Democrats, who have really sort of stood up for Clinton as the establishment candidate and sort of tried to sort of push back against Sanders’s insurgency.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you share this view, Professor Rohde?

DAVID ROHDE: Yes, I think that’s a very good characterization of the lay of the landscape. For example, with respect to the media coverage, the media covers what the media thinks that the public will be interested in, rather than what might be helpful to the public—

AMY GOODMAN: And clearly, clearly there—

DAVID ROHDE: —in terms of making up its mind. And so Trump dominates, because Trump is outrageous and a lot of people find him entertaining. And other people find him horrifying but still watch him like an automobile accident is watched. So—

AMY GOODMAN: So what could happen at the Republican convention?

DAVID ROHDE: —earlier, Bernie Sanders didn’t—

AMY GOODMAN: Could you explain?

DAVID ROHDE: Earlier, Bernie Sanders didn’t have that kind of draw for public attention. I think if we looked at coverage in the next couple of weeks, you would see that Bernie Sanders gets a lot more coverage than he was getting before, because he is more interesting to the public, at least in the media’s mind.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Rohde, what could happen at the Republican convention? We talked about a brokered Democratic convention. What can happen with the Republicans?

DAVID ROHDE: Well, again, I think a brokered convention is unlikely, but it’s certainly a lot more plausible in the Republican Party, where you have five viable candidates left, and that the—three in the establishment wing, sort of, and two in the far-right wing, the insurgent wing, if you like. And so, the battle is still going on in the Republican Party as to who will represent the respective wings of the party for the—in the final contest. So, it’s likely to go on for a while. But again, it may very well be settled long before the convention. We’re going to—March 1st, for example, is going to be Super Tuesday—12 events, and seven of them in the South. That’s going to shake things out a bit. And then March 15th, you have five big primaries, states, in the same day, and that’s going to make a big difference. And that’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there.

DAVID ROHDE: That’s five weeks from now.

AMY GOODMAN: We thank you so much for being with us, speaking of the South, joining us from the South, David Rohde, professor of political science at Duke University, co-author of a series of books on every national election since 1980. And I want to thank Matt Karp for joining us, assistant professor of history at Princeton University and contributing editor at JacobinMag.com. We’ll link to your piece, “The War on Bernie Sanders.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to St. Louis to find out why the Justice Department has sued the city of Ferguson. Stay with us.

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