Electability. It’s a term batted around with such frequency during the months of caucuses and primaries leading up to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, its significance has largely been glossed over.
But for fervent supporters of non-establishment candidates like Bernie Sanders, electability could easily constitute the most loathsome concept, as his nomination for president hinges on the Democratic Party establishment’s interpretation of it — and Sanders, in their eyes, doesn’t quite fit the bill.
At issue, to the consternation of Sanders’ supporters, are superdelegates. Despite conflicting reports concerning their significance, the fact is, due to structural changes in the party’s nomination process implemented in the 1980s, superdelegates have the potential to nullify a popular vote for the Vermont senator — because that’s what they were designed to do.
To understand how this superdelegate arrangement works, it’s necessary to understand the delegate system.
Delegates — “often party activists, local political leaders, or early supporters of a given candidate” — are chosen in processes that vary from state to state, but generally represent candidates proportionally based on the outcome of those states’ primaries or caucuses. Those state delegates are thus “pledged” (or, “bound”) to their candidate, whom they must vote for at the national convention following the primary process. To clinch the Democratic nomination for 2016, a candidate needs to secure at least 2,382 total delegates.
Superdelegates, also referred to as “unpledged” delegates, are elected officials, and “include not only members of the national committee, but all members of Congress and governors, former presidents and vice presidents, former leaders of the Senate and House, and former chairs of the Democratic National Committee.” For 2016, they constitute roughly 15 percent, or 712, of the party’s 4,763 delegates. Being “unpledged” to a specific contender means the superdelegates remain free to choose their candidate up until the convention — and even if a superdelegate backs, say, Clinton at one point, they are free to change their mind and ultimately vote for Sanders.
But there’s a catch.
As Florida congresswoman and wildly unpopular Democratic Party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz explained to CNN’s Jake Tapper, though the only delegates ‘available’ — up for grabs, so to speak — during primaries and caucuses, are pledged delegates, as described above. Superdelegates, those unpledged to a specific candidate, exist for a very specific reason, which will likely bewilder many unfamiliar with their purpose. As Wasserman Schultz clarified:
“Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists. We are as a Democratic Party really highlight and emphasize [sic] inclusiveness and diversity at our convention, and so we want to give every opportunity to grassroots activists and diverse, committed Democrats to be able to participate, attend, and be a delegate at the convention. And so we separate out those unpledged delegates to make sure that there isn’t competition between them.”
If her statement seems counterintuitive, or even somewhat contradictory, simply factor in electability.
After the 1980 election, which was largely considered a disaster due to pledged delegates, two-time former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt headed a commission named for him to rework the nomination process — which resulted in the adoption of superdelegates.
In a recent interview with Democracy Now, Duke professor David Rohde expounded on the creation and purpose of superdelegates:
“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 go on to lose the general election […]
“[T]he 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.”
This superdelegate arrangement essentially ensures that should an insurgent candidate emerge whom the Democratic establishment feels lacks electability — or, for that matter, whom the establishment finds objectionable for any reason — party insiders can close ranks and intervene by casting their collective vote for the ‘better’ candidate.
Voters who were outraged to learn Sanders’ landslide popular victory in New Hampshire could yet result in a tie with Clinton didn’t gauge the Democratic Party’s hardline dedication to self-preservation. Carried away by Sanders’ populist message and pledges for sweeping reforms, however enticing they may be, ordinary voters turned out in droves — forgetting the party system must, above all, take the White House to advance its narrative.
Superdelegates won’t necessarily rule out a Sanders nomination; but, by design, they could, should the Democratic Party establishment feel the need to protect itself from threats — perceived or actual — to its existence.
And Sanders, who is an Independent running as a Democrat, panics party hardliners — not necessarily because he isn’t electable — but, arguably, because he is.
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