I’m Super, You’re Okay. Clinton, Sanders and Arithmetic.

[Note: After I wrote this long post, I saw two articles at Salon that nicely capture what’s going on with the selection of delegates to the Democratic convention. You could go to the bottom of this post and read them, skipping everything I have to say. I mean, they were both written by professional journalists – the people we trust to report and explain the news.]

You may have heard that the Democratic Party has superdelegates. These are people who get to vote at the upcoming national convention because of who they are (they’re former Presidents, members of Congress, Democratic Party officials, and so on). There will be 712 superdelegates at this year’s convention. That’s roughly 15% of the total number of delegates (which is 4,765). It’s been reported that most of the superdelegates (469 of them so far) have said they’ll vote for Hillary Clinton at the convention, but all of them are free to vote for Bernie Sanders if they want. 

The other 85% of the Democratic delegates are selected as the result of primary elections and party caucuses. These contests began in Iowa on February 1st and will end in the District of Columbia on June 14th. How many of the Clinton or Sanders delegates are selected in these contests depends on how many votes Clinton or Sanders receives (as well as the rules of the local Democratic Party). Unlike the similar process taking place in the Republican Party, none of the Democratic contests are “winner take all”. Delegates are assigned roughly proportionately.

According to Wikipedia, Hillary Clinton has 1,310 or 54% of these pledged, non-super delegates so far. Bernie Sanders has 1,094 or 46%. Those percentages roughly correspond to the number of votes Clinton and Sanders have received. Some states don’t report vote totals, but for the states that do, the New York Times says Clinton has received 9.4 million votes (57%) and Sanders has received 7 million (43%).

Clearly, this process is totally rigged!  

That’s what people are saying anyway. From a news article in the Times:

Backers of Senator Bernie Sanders, bewildered at why he keeps winning states but cannot seem to cut into Hillary Clinton’s delegate count because of her overwhelming lead with “superdelegates,” have used Reddit and Twitter to start an aggressive pressure campaign to flip [superdelegate] votes [to Sanders].

From a comment (recommended by 612 readers) in response to that article:

Not only is the DNC primary process in conflict with Democracy, but it is borderline authoritarian. Party leaders picking a candidate before voters have yet to speak is the epitome of corruption. If Hillary Clinton should get the nomination in no small part due to super delegate power, the DNC is in for a very harsh reality.

From noted political scientist D. J. Trump:

“Think of this. So I watch Bernie, he wins. He wins. He keeps winning, winning. And then I see, he’s got no chance. They always say he’s got no chance. Why doesn’t he have a chance? Because the system is corrupt,” Trump argued. “This is a crooked system, folks.”

From the hosts of a morning talk show:

Co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were exasperated by just how rigged the Democratic primary system must be for Sanders to have won eight of the last nine primaries and still fallen further back in the overall delegate count [note: Sanders actually earned 110 more delegates than Clinton in those nine contests, eight of which were caucuses, not primary elections].

“Bernie Sanders won Wyoming by 12 percent, but he might not even pick up a single delegate. Hillary Clinton was awarded 11 delegates, Bernie Sanders only seven,” Scarborough said. “Why does the Democratic Party even have voting booths? This system is so rigged” [note: Sanders and Clinton both received seven delegates to the state’s May 28th convention as a result of the Wyoming caucuses — see the update down below for more on this subject].

A wise person would ignore all the hot air and misinformation being spread about the shocking unfairness of the Democrats’ presidential nomination process. New York and Pennsylvania will be voting soon, after which it should become even more obvious which candidate has the most support among Democratic voters.

Nevertheless, a few points deserve mention (I’ve never claimed to be wise).

First, the number of states a candidate wins has nothing at all to do with how many delegates that candidate receives. That’s because delegates are apportioned to the states based on their populations and some states have much larger populations than others. Idaho, Hawaii, Alaska, Utah and Wyoming, all of which Sanders won last month, had 111 delegates up for grabs between them. New York, voting next week, has 291. Pennsylvania, the following week, has 210. It’s only in the anti-democratic U.S. Senate where every state, the huge and the tiny, gets the same number of votes.

Second, in terms of democracy, primary elections are more democratic than caucuses. Primary elections encourage relatively large numbers of voters to participate and everyone casts a secret ballot. Caucuses rely on a smaller number of voters who are willing and able to attend a meeting and then vote in public. That’s why primary elections have replaced caucuses in most states, especially the big states with the most delegates.

Of the 37 Democratic contests so far, Clinton has won 20 and Sanders has won 17. But 16 of Clinton’s 20 wins have been the result of primary elections. Only six of Sanders’s 17 wins have been. This is why Clinton has received so many more votes than Sanders. (By the way, states that have caucuses don’t apportion delegates based on the total statewide vote. Only states with primary elections do that. States that haven’t adopted the more modern primary election system generally have complicated rules that apportion delegates based on which caucuses a candidate wins. Caucuses are not elections. They’re glorified discussion groups.) 

Third, if there weren’t any superdelegates at all, Clinton would be well on her way to winning the nomination on the first ballot by virtue of her success in the primaries and caucuses. All she would need to do is to continue winning a majority of the delegates before the convention starts. The existence of the superdelegates, therefore, is what’s stopping Clinton from arriving at the convention with the nomination sewn up. The existence of the superdelegates means that a candidate needs to win roughly 60% of the non-superdelegates in order to get the nomination, instead of a simple majority. If a candidate were to win 60% of the non-superdelegates, he or she wouldn’t need any superdelegate votes at all. But Clinton has “only” won 54% of the delegates so far.

Since the superdelegates do exist (as they’ve existed in the Democratic Party for decades), there are only 2,404 delegates left to be selected before the convention. And that means Clinton would need to win 1,073 or 69% of those remaining 2,404 non-superdelegates (much more than her current 54%) in order to have the nomination in her grasp before the convention begins. Since Sanders would need to win even more of the remaining delegates (1,289 or 83% of those 2,404) to accomplish the same thing, it’s clear that neither candidate will have enough pledged delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot (unless one of them drops out before the convention, which isn’t going to happen, despite Clinton’s email issue). The arithmetic dictates that the superdelegates will get the last word on who becomes the Democratic nominee.

Now, since the rules say they get to vote, who should they vote for? Should the superdelegates vote for the candidate with the loudest supporters on the internet? Or the one perceived to have the most “momentum” this week? Or should they vote for the candidate who arrives at the convention with the most delegates? In purely democratic terms, given the numbers, the answer is clear: Hillary Clinton should receive a majority of the superdelegate votes and win the nomination.

If I were a superdelegate, however, I’d vote for whichever candidate I preferred, whether or not the voters in the primaries and caucuses agreed with me. Personally, I don’t see the Democratic Party’s decision to give senior members of the party a voice in selecting the party’s nominee as a terrible, un-democratic mistake. (If the Republicans had superdelegates, Trump would be less likely to be the Republican nominee.)

But considering what I’ve said above, all this overheated complaining from Sanders supporters and political commentators about unfairness and a rigged process is just silly (“He’s not getting the most votes or the most delegates and he won’t get the nomination. How unfair!”). Sanders doesn’t have a right to the Democratic nomination, no matter how much his supporters whine about unfairness and a lack of democracy. The fact is that the people are speaking and they’re saying that Hillary Clinton should be the Democratic nominee, the infamous superdelegates notwithstanding.

Let’s hope that everyone who is complaining so much and feeling so persecuted comes out in November and helps elect Democratic candidates, instead of staying home and moaning about how Bernie and they have been mistreated. We really do need to cast as many votes as possible for Democrats in November, because the Republican Party has completely gone off the rails. That’s the reality of our situation.


These two articles were published this morning at Salon. Both refer to the results of the Wyoming caucuses. One article is called:

“This system is so rigged”: Outrage as undemocratic superdelegate system gives Clinton unfair edge over Sanders

The other is called:

Bernie is wrong about super-delegates: Why his tortured Dem Primary arguments try to have it both ways

One article dispenses a lot of heat. The other dispenses some light. Guess which one relies on facts instead of bluster.

1 thought on “I’m Super, You’re Okay. Clinton, Sanders and Arithmetic.

  1. Well said. Apparently people have decided that mathematics are corrupt.

    On the Democratic side, Clinton has the most super delegates, but also the most pledged delegates and the most votes by actual people. As frustrating as it is for Sanders voters to hear this, it isn’t the candidate with the most passionate supporters that win, but the one with the broadest base of support. Personally, I’d be fine with either of them as the nominee. If Sanders doesn’t get it, I hope his supporters can wake up to the fact that Clinton’s politics aren’t far enough from Sanders to warrant not voting for her, particularly when compared with the alternatives.

    On the Republican side, the cold hard reality for Trump is that he doesn’t have the support of the majority of Republicans. He might have a plurality, but that has never been enough in political parties. The nominee of a party is the spokesperson for that party’s coalition of interests. If most of that coalition doesn’t want him as their spokesperson, throwing a temper tantrum about it just looks impotent. Ironically, the delegate system has actually inflated his plurality and given him a chance to capture the majority of delegates despite not having the majority of voters. It’s his own fault that he’s fumbling at it.

    I think the fact that Trump is getting his clock cleaned in the delegate fight also tells us something about his skills as a manager. Cruz’s policy positions are dangerous nonsense, but you have to respect his campaign management skills. If I were a Republican, wondering which of these guys might actually be able to get things done once in office, I’d be taking into account which one was managing this situation better. (I do hope Clinton and Sanders are noticing how well Cruz’s campaign is being run and preparing to fight him adequately, if it becomes necessary.)

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