Over the weekend, Democrats made what they wanted you to believe was a Very Big Change. In the wake of the 2016 Democratic primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the Democratic National Committee prohibited superdelegates – elected officials and party leaders – from voting on the first ballot at the party’s convention if none of the candidates have received a majority of pledged delegates. Which is less than revolutionary.
We chatted – via email – about the DNC’s move, the momentum factor and what it all means for 2020. Our conversation, lightly edited for grammar and spelling (because Chris is a terrible typer) is below.
Chris Cillizza: Harry!
Superdelegates are gone! Our long national nightmare is over! Bernie Sanders is president! Wait, what’s that you say?
OK, on a serious note, the Democratic National Committee did significantly alter the way in which superdelegates – the éminence grise of the Democratic Party – factor into the nominating process over the weekend. Superdelegates are no longer able to vote on the first ballot at the party’s nominating convention unless one of the candidates has already secured a majority of the pledged delegates through the primary process. Which means, in real terms, that superdelegates can’t hand the nomination to someone who hasn’t won it outright through actual votes.
The changes also mean that a candidate can’t count superdelegate supporters as part of his or her overall delegate count as the primary process plays out – a major gripe of the Sanders’ folks related to how Clinton used her massive superdelegate edge to portray herself as all-but-inevitable from the start of the process.
Soo……..do these changes actually change all that much? Should the Sanders people celebrate?
Harry Enten: Shalom Christoph(er),
You know I do enjoy a little make-believe, but it’s important to know when we’re in the real world … and when we’re in fantasyland.
It is 100% true that Clinton jumped out to a huge lead in endorsements, and therefore superdelegates, in 2016. The question is whether that made too much of a difference in the outcome of the primary. Yes, it’s true that endorsements tend to be correlated with primary outcomes, though, as Donald Trump taught us, history doesn’t always hold.
But the question is, were people watching the superdelegate counts and thereby deciding on Clinton? I’d argue that they probably weren’t. Remember, Clinton had a large superdelegate lead in 2008 as well. Ultimately, though, it didn’t affect the outcome. Barack Obama ultimately came from behind and beat Clinton in pledged delegates, and the superdelegates followed in his direction.
This brings me to the key point: pledged delegates decided 2016 like they did 2008. Clinton got more votes than Sanders and won the nomination that way.
How does not allowing superdelegates to vote on the first ballot ultimately change very much? They can still endorse and influence the primary that way. They can still vote on the second ballot and influence the result that way.
Did you know that superdelegates, because they aren’t pledged, can change their mind?
Do I sound skeptical?
Cillizza: This felt like an olive twig rather than an olive branch to the Sanders people when I first read of the deal – and, having read your thoughts, it feels even more like one.
It seems to me that the DNC knew it had a major problem with the Sanders wing of the party in the last election – as symbolized by the fact that Debbie Wasserman Schultz was run off as Democratic National Committee chair in the opening moments of the 2016 convention because of emailed released by WikiLeaks that showed her with a clear thumb on the scale for Clinton.
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Given that outrage, the DNC had to do something to show a) they were listening and b) Sanders’ fight hadn’t been in vain. So, they came up with this idea of no superdelegates on the first ballot. Which feels to me like a gesture as opposed to a significant change.
BUT, let me play devils’ advocate for a minute on your contention that people weren’t watching superdelegate counts as they were deciding who to vote for in the 2016 primaries. I agree that the average Democratic voter didn’t go into the voting booth with the updated superdelegate counts on their mind. But I do think that the superdelegate counts did add to a sense of inevitability for Clinton, the sense that no matter what Sanders did, he was never going to catch her. That she was the nominee. Full stop.
Human nature being what it is, I could see how people who might have been on the fence about Sanders decided not to vote for him because they didn’t think he could win and/or they wanted to be able to tell their friends they voted for the winner. We all like winners, right Harry?
Enten: Perhaps, we can now go to my NYC haunt the Olive Tree to discuss olive branches versus olive twigs.
Oh, I definitely agree on the divide. That convention was ugly, if you remember.
Now, I think you bring up an interesting question. Yes, we know that there are momentum effects in primaries. People do seem to get aboard a winning train. So I am sympathetic to that argument.
But it’s important to remember that Clinton wasn’t anywhere close to attaining a majority of delegates at the beginning of the process in 2016. There was plenty of room to catch Clinton. Superdelegates made up only a small portion of delegates overall.
I’d argue the big problem, again, is that Sanders simply couldn’t win over black voters in the south. Sanders’ bid was all but done when he lost the South Carolina primary to Clinton. Now, she was aided by an endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn, but were people caring about that endorsement because he had a superdelegate vote? Or were people caring about that because he was a longtime representative whose voice they trusted?
Let me ask you this … if people like winners, then why are the New York Yankees the most hated team in baseball?
Cillizza: We should go to my NYC haunt: The Olive Garden. You can’t get unlimited breadsticks just anywhere!!
I agree that Sanders didn’t lose the nomination because of Clinton’s superdelegate lead. He lost because he could never broaden his coalition or seriously challenge her for hers. I also think the Democratic Party, writ large, needed to find a way to make peace with the Sanders people and viewed this superdelegate change as a way to do it – even if, as we agree, there isn’t much to the changes.
Let’s look forward. Given how GIANT we expect the field to be in 2020, is there a chance we are talking about a scenario where no one gets a majority of pledged delegates on the first ballot and superdelegates decide the outcome?
Enten: You gotta love the Olive Garden commercials.
I think now you’re asking the correct question. What does the superdelegate change mean going forward? Well, no news network is going to show anyone with a large delegate lead before any votes are cast. Yet, I tend to doubt that would make a difference in 2020 because there is no obvious next in line. I think many lawmakers would have been careful in endorsing too early anyway because of the perception of 2016.
What I have learned more generally speaking over the last few years is that in politics, we’re dealing with small sample sizes. Yes, we can make educated guesses about where things are going, but just because something hasn’t happened in a long time doesn’t mean it can’t in the near future.
It seems to me that because so many people are running that the chance for a contested convention are higher than normal. The Democrats also have proportional delegate rules that heighten the chance of that occurring. The key question is whether you can get three or four strong candidates. There’s that 15% threshold in Democratic primaries, so someone winning 45% of the vote with a slew of people in the teens probably doesn’t work for those who want a contested convention.
And that’s the beauty of this rule, if you’re a longtime DNC member who likes superdelegates. Their limited power in round one may be gone, but they maintain it in round two when it would have mattered the most anyway. They’ve done so for a cycle where the chance of a contested convention is higher than normal.
Still, I should say it is small chance, most likely. If it were to occur, I wonder what those who wanted to get rid of them will think of the new rule change …