Emboldened by a big win in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders now has a two-pronged fight on his hands in the Democratic presidential race: wooing rank-and-file voters in other states and seeking to peel away party leaders known as “superdelegates,” who are heavily behind Hillary Clinton.
As Senator Sanders shows signs of making headway with voters in South Carolina, the fight over superdelegates is implicitly raising a deeper question: Just how democratic is the Democratic Party?
Could Sanders potentially beat Mrs. Clinton in the overall vote count and still lose the nomination?
Some 1 in 6 delegates at the Democratic National Convention this July in Philadelphia will be party leaders who aren’t bound to vote based on the outcome of their state’s primary. They’re known as unpledged delegates (and more commonly the less-official term superdelegates). Of these 712 delegates, about half have already come out in favor of Clinton, and very few for Sanders.
The current situation reveals some turmoil within liberal circles. Some argue that the superdelegate system gives the party a healthy safety valve, to deal with close contests or situations where flaws in a candidate (such as a scandal) emerge when many delegates have already been sewn up. But others say it builds in cronyism and stirs the very kind of contention that’s visible now.
Grass-roots efforts to address the issue are already taking shape.
One petition on the liberal MoveOn.org site, organized by the executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, asks superdelegates to agree that the nomination “should be decided by who gets the most votes, and not who has the most support from party insiders.” It has 117,325 signatures as of Monday afternoon.
Another, similarly, calls on superdelegates to “announce that in the event of a close race, you’ll align yourself with regular voters – not party elites.” It is backed by representatives of three groups: Ready to Fight, Progressive Kick, and Women for Bernie. It has 173,430 signatures so far.
Yet superdelegates have been known to change their votes if momentum points to a new front-runner.
In 2008, many superdelegates shifted their announced support from Clinton to Barack Obama as it became clear that the then-senator from Illinois was winning the popular vote.
This was Sanders's argument on CBS’s "Face the Nation" Sunday. If he keeps winning primaries, he said, he’ll prove that he's electable when all of America casts ballots in November.
“If we continue to do well around the country, and if superdelegates – whose main interest in life is to make sure that we do not have a Republican in the White House – if they understand that I am the candidate ... who is best suited to defeat the Republican nominee, I think they will start coming over to us," Sanders said.
He also said he’s pitching his case directly to super delegates, saying he “just met with a couple last night.”
The focus on superdelegates comes as the political terrain has shifted after New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary vote.
On one hand, Sanders came out of the Granite State with the momentum of a resounding electoral win. But the campaign is now moving into less-friendly political terrain, southward and westward from the liberal Northeast. Polls show Sanders has gained on Clinton but remains well behind her in South Carolina, the next primary on the schedule after the Nevada caucuses.
Nationally, Clinton is averaging 49 percent support among Democrats in polls of likely or registered voters, according to tracking by the RealClearPolitics website. That compares with about 35 percent for Sanders – a number that hasn’t showed upward momentum since mid-January.
And it explains why superdelegates aren't changing their minds just yet.