When you get caught up in the dynamics of this or that caucus or primary, it’s sometimes hard to keep in mind that the name of the game in presidential nominating contests is winning delegates. In that respect, the Democratic contest began with a very big advantage for Hillary Clinton thanks to the phenomenon of unelected “superdelegates” — that is, elected officials and party pooh-bahs with an advance ticket to the convention and total discretion as to how to cast their votes.
At the moment, after the “virtual tie” in Iowa and the blowout Sanders victory in New Hampshire, Bernie leads HRC in pledged delegates by a narrow 34–32 margin (all of these numbers are from a running count kept by Bloomberg). But Clinton leads Sanders among superdelegates who have announced their preferences by a margin of 362 to 8. There remain 342 superdelegates who are, at present, undecided or haven’t disclosed their intentions.
Now we’re already hearing from Team Sanders that superdelegates will eventually defect to Bernie once he wins more primaries, just as they did for Barack Obama in 2008. It’s unclear, however, if Sanders will have the same kind of pull. One wave of Clinton defections to Obama in 2008 occurred among African-Americans when the Illinois senator showed in Iowa that he was viable. He also benefited from some moderate superdelegate support that may be difficult for Sanders to attract. Perhaps the biggest factor that could unleash or freeze superdelegates in their current Clinton-dominated position is perceptions of electability. You can expect Clinton people to stress the high risk involved in nominating a “74-year-old self-proclaimed Democratic socialist,” as the saying goes, to superdelegate audiences. And at the moment, Sanders supporters can reply with head-to-head general-election polls showing Bernie doing as well as or better than Clinton against various GOP candidates.
Another thing to keep in mind, especially in making comparisons to 2008, is that Clinton’s base of elite support among elected officials is about as wide and deep as that enjoyed by any non-incumbent candidate ever. The “Endorsement Primary” count by FiveThirtyEight (which gives higher “points” for statewide electeds than for mere U.S. reps) has Clinton leading Sanders 466 to 2 (by contrast, the Republican endorsement leader is Marco Rubio with 65 points). There’s not a direct relationship between endorsements and superdelegates since the latter category includes party officials, who are more likely to care about the wishes of the kind of activists supporting Sanders. But there remains quite a mountain for Sanders to climb, and without superdelegates he’ll need to win a disproportionate percentage of pledged delegates through voting events (one estimate is that he needs to win 54 percent of the remaining delegates). If that happens, of course, Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability” will be a distant memory.