Bernie Sanders Has Some Strange Ideas About Why He Deserves the Nomination

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Bernie Sanders Campaigns In California Ahead Of State Primary
The voters have stolen the nomination from Bernie Sanders.Photo: Ramin Talaie/2016 Getty Images

The season-finale episode of Saturday Night Live imagines a bar-stool conversation between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in which the two candidates bond over Sanders’s stupidity in refusing to attack Clinton, and Clinton having rigged the primary system. (Clinton: “Remember all those states like Wyoming where you beat me by a lot, but I still got most of the delegates?” Sanders: “That was so stupid! It’s rigged!” Clinton: “I know. It’s so rigged!”)

The system isn’t rigged. Clinton is going to win the nomination because she has won far more votes. She currently leads with 55 percent of the total vote to 43 percent. That’s fairly close for a primary, but it’s not Bush-versus-Gore close. It’s not even Bush-versus-Dukakis close (the 1988 election, widely seen as a landslide, was settled by less than 8 percent). Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates is proportionally smaller than her lead in total votes because Sanders has benefited from low-turnout caucuses. Yet Sanders has enjoyed astonishing success at framing his narrative of the primary as a contest that, in some form or fashion, has been stolen from its rightful winner. His version of events has bled into the popular culture and fueled disillusionment among his supporters.

Sanders initially discounted Clinton’s success as the product of “conservative” states, which is a technically accurate depiction of the states as a whole, but not of the heavily African-American Democratic voters in them who supported Clinton. As Sanders has continued to fail to dent Clinton’s enormous lead in votes and delegates, his campaign has devised a series of increasingly absurd formulations to defend its theme that Sanders, not Clinton, is the authentic choice of the people.

1. The activists love Bernie. “Any objective analyst of the current campaign understands that the energy and the grass-roots activism of this campaign is with us,” Sanders said recently. “Not Hillary Clinton.” But that’s not how you decide elections. Energy and activism are definitely part of the election process. But the way you determine the winner is by holding elections.

2. Bernie has won more a lot of states. Sanders’s “top advisers” tell Politico that he will make “an aggressive pitch” for his nomination because Sanders “will be able to point to victories over Clinton in more than 20 states.” There are two problems with this pitch. First, unless you’re really into states’ rights, the number of states won is not a terribly useful metric — Sanders has done disproportionately well in low-population states, while Clinton’s supporters are concentrated in larger states. That is hardly a democratic basis to award him the nomination.

Also, 20 states is definitely less than half of all the states.

3. Pledged delegates don’t count because of superdelegates. When presented with Clinton’s insurmountable lead in pledged delegates, Sanders notes dismissively that pledged delegates alone are not enough to win (i.e., “Hillary Clinton will not have the requisite number of pledged delegates to win the Democratic nomination at the end of the nominating process on June 14. Won’t happen. She will be dependent on superdelegates.”).

4. Superdelegates also don’t count because of pledged delegates. The superdelegate system, he has charged, “stacks the deck in a very, very unfair way for any establishment candidate.” Or, alternately, “The media is in error when they lumped superdelegates with pledged delegates. Pledged delegates are real.”

The nomination is won by adding up pledged delegates and superdelegates. Clinton has a large lead in pledged delegates, and an even larger lead in superdelegates. You could rely entirely on one or the other, or change the weights between them in any fashion, and Clinton would still win. Sanders simply refuses to accept the combination of the two, instead changing subjects from one to the other. Ask him about the pledged delegates, and he brings up the superdelegates. Ask about the superdelegates, and he changes to the pledged delegates. It’s an infinite loop of bullshit.

Sanders deserves some sympathy. He set out to run a message campaign to spread his ideas. At some point, the race became quasi-competitive, and he discovered that he needed a competitive rationale in order to make the news media cover it, and as he has failed to gain ground, his competitive rationale has gone from strained to ludicrous. Meanwhile, his message has attracted fervent supporters who like him so much they actually believe his crazy process arguments.