Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Politics & Consistency: Presidential Primary Edition

I'm okay in general with people who feel the Bern. There's a lot of his critique that resonates with me, especially his sense of outrage about the injustice of a wildly inequitable system. But without getting too far into a debate about whether or candidate Bernie Sanders and his policy prescriptions are superior to that of Hillary Clinton--this post is not about advocating for one or the other--it is worth looking at one argument the Sanders' supporters consistently cite as evidence of the Fix that the Democratic Party and its mainstream media enablers have for Bernie and the Revolution: the undemocratic nature of the superdelegates.

As of March 29 following this weekend's contests, the current "pledged" delegate count stands at Clinton's 1243 to Sanders's 945 according to both RealClearPolitics and Bloomberg. The total number needed for the nomination is 2,382 delegates. So you say, aha! It's close! But then there are the superdelegates--effectively freelancers who are Party apparatchiks and, although still part of specific state delegations, can pledge themselves to whomever they see fit. Clinton is, at present, thumping the Vermont Senator in this category, 469 to 29. That means that Clinton has a sizeable advantage heading into the homestretch for the nomination.

Foul! Cry the Sanders people. This isn't democracy! This is a sham! 

Maybe yes, maybe no. I'm not sure how I come down on the question of superdelegates, and so this post isn't trying to defend that. What this post is trying to do, however, is point out that if you think democracy involves opening the doors to as many voters as possible, you can't trumpet big delegate pickups as evidence of the Will of the Voters if the process by which those delegates were earned is equally undemocratic. You can't have it both ways.

Sanders won the Alaska, Hawaii, and most importantly the Washington State caucuses this weekend. He won big, and that led to a haul of delegates, closing the gap by about 70. He crushed Clinton in Washington 73 to 27 percent. That's about as lopsided a win as you're going to get this cycle. And Sanders supporters have been reminding everyone of this huge win, saying it's every bit as important as all those Southern states that Clinton racked up, even though (the argument goes) the media plays up every Clinton victory, and downplays every Sanders victory.

But here's the thing: Clinton's southern victories really were bigger. Take a look at North Carolina: Clinton got about 55 percent of the vote to Sanders's 45. Less impressive than the Washington rout, right? Depends on how you count these things. In NC, 616,000 voted for Clinton to 460,000 for Sanders. In Washington, 19,159 caucused for Sanders, while 7,140 did so for Clinton.

Basically, Sanders has done exceptionally well in states that choose their delegates by holding caucuses--where the diehards have disproportionate impact on a contest. With the exception of Iowa, Nevada, and the American Samoa, Sanders has won every single caucus event (and Iowa was very close). By contrast, he has won the primaries in his own home state of VT and its neighbor in NH, the "Democrats Abroad" caucus, and the one big surprise, the close win in Michigan. But if you look at the total number of people who have actually cast their votes for the two, Clinton's lead is, as the Senator would say, yuge.

Effectively, caucuses are contests by which someone like Sanders with his dedicated following can win his own version of superdelegates. We can never know what would have happened in an open Washington primary, but I can only appeal to reason by saying that, even if Sanders had won the state, there was no way he would have won 73 to 27.

Just to be clear again: I am not saying that it's not fair that Sanders picked up his delegates that way. I don't have much of a dog in the fight for the Dem nomination one way or the other. But what I find off-putting about the righteous screeds that the Sanders supporters is their deep belief that everyone has stacked the cards against them...unless the cards happen to fall in their favor. If you say that superdelegates are undemocratic, well, then you're committed to saying that caucuses are as well.


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