At first glance, Bernie Sanders’s successful theft of several delegates from Hillary Clinton at Nevada’s county conventions on Saturday mirrors Ted Cruz’s machinations on the Republican side. Through shrewd maneuvering and despite his underdog status, Cruz has picked off a number of Donald Trump’s delegates over the last month in Louisiana, Georgia, and Tennessee as he works to prevent Trump from clinching the GOP nomination. And after several outlets declared Saturday that Sanders had “won Nevada” after losing the state’s caucuses last month, it may appear that the Vermont senator is mounting a Cruz-style insurgency to prevent Clinton from locking up the nomination before Democrats hold their convention in July.
But in fact, Sanders has almost none of the tools Cruz is using to steal delegates through sleight-of-hand. Democratic party rules, the slim pickings in caucus states, and the realities of a two-person race severely limit his ability to peel off more than a few delegates in a handful of states. Even if Sanders’s team plays perfect inside baseball, the opportunities Cruz has found in the Republican race simply don’t exist on the Democratic side. “You can’t make big moves,” says Anthony Corrado, a professor at Colby College and an expert on the Democratic party’s nominating rules.
Meanwhile, other ways of making up the deficit are being neglected. Though the Sanders campaign has vowed to aggressively court the nearly 700 uncommitted and pro-Clinton superdelegates, nearly a dozen party leaders and elected officials reached by National Review say they haven’t heard from his campaign or his surrogates. And in states where Sanders won big, most superdelegates scoff at his recent demand that they “listen to the will of their people.”
Even with this weekend’s apparent upset in Nevada, Sanders’s limited chances to divert bound Clinton backers and his faltering superdelegate strategy leave him no shortcuts to forcing a contested convention in July.
Structural differences between the parties give Sanders few options to emulate Cruz’s success. The Democrat’s decision to forgo winner-take-all contests is the most obvious hurdle, but it’s not the only one. While the GOP nominating process operates through a patchwork of state rules, Democrats’ experience with convention chaos in the ’60s and ’70s birthed a more uniform system of rules that’s harder to game at the state level. There are no “unbound” delegates elected at state Democratic conventions, and pledged delegates are usually pre-picked by the campaigns themselves. Rules and credentials committees are also apportioned to reflect the share of delegates held by each candidate, instead of being elected directly by convention attendees.
All that makes it far tougher to stack the deck against a front-runner by packing a convention with supporters, as Cruz has done in several states. “There isn’t that kind of independence or severing from the election results that you might have on the Republican side,” says Corrado.
Structural differences between the parties give Sanders few options to emulate Cruz’s success.
What about Nevada, where the Sanders campaign was able to pick up extra delegates by packing a convention hall? As a caucus state, Nevada operates under slightly different rules than states that hold Democratic primaries. Though 23 of the state’s delegates were decided through February’s vote, a “multi-tiered” caucus system means a remaining twelve pledged and “at-large” delegates were still up for grabs on Saturday. That’s the case in most caucus states, which gives Sanders further openings his savvy operatives will likely try to exploit.
But it won’t be near enough to put a real dent in Clinton’s delegate lead. “The caucus states tend to be small, so there usually aren’t that many delegates to pick up,” says Corrado. Sanders’s Nevada maneuvering earned him just two additional delegates, and Corrado believes that Sanders could only pick up a maximum of 30 delegates even if he successfully packed every caucus convention. That won’t do him much good in the face of Clinton’s 250-delegate advantage.
Finally, a two-person race on the Democratic side gives Sanders no chance to repurpose delegates earned by candidates who later dropped out. “Other than the odd Martin O’Malley out there, there aren’t a lot of delegates whose candidates have lost who might be coming back into play,” says Corrado. Cruz is able to pick up erstwhile Rubio delegates in Louisiana and elsewhere, but Sanders is playing a zero-sum game with Clinton.
That means Sanders’s only chance is to flip hundreds of superdelegates to his side. Last week, his campaign manager Jeff Weaver told reporters he planned to erase Clinton’s 450-superdelegate advantage through direct outreach, having superdelegates committed to Sanders make calls to the undecided — especially in states such as Washington, Maine, and Idaho, where Sanders won handily. “If you get 60, 70, 80 percent of the vote in a state, you know what? I think superdelegates should vote for us,” Sanders told Stephen Colbert Thursday evening.
#share#But most superdelegates, even in states Sanders won, say they aren’t being wooed by his campaign. “I’m not aware of any official outreach by the [Sanders] campaign or campaign surrogates to any of my superdelegates in Colorado,” says Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic party and an undecided delegate. “Actually, I haven’t heard from anyone since the caucus,” says Van Beechler, an uncommitted superdelegate from Idaho. David McDonald, an undecided superdelegate from Washington, says that while the Clinton campaign keeps in touch with him, he hasn’t heard from the Sanders campaign since his state’s caucus.
Clinton superdelegates from states Sanders won handily say the same thing. “I’ve heard nothing from any official in the campaign, and I actually just saw the superdelegate who’s a Bernie supporter here in Maine yesterday and he said nothing to me,” says Peggy Schaffer, vice chair of the Maine Democratic party and a Clinton supporter.
Most superdelegates, even in states Sanders won, say they aren’t being wooed by his campaign.
Superdelegates are hearing from local Sanders activists, however — though they seem to be more focused on harassing Clinton supporters than on convincing those who are uncommitted. “I have had several Sanders supporters who have given my law firm negative reviews on our Facebook page, and they will not agree to remove them unless I support Sanders,” says Barry Goodman, a Clinton-backing superdelegate from Michigan who gets daily calls, e-mails, and letters urging him to flip. “Everyone likes to have the conspiracy theory that a lot of these contacts are supported by the campaign and are being directed by the campaign, but I have no idea that that’s happening.”
Uncommitted and pro-Clinton delegates alike are frustrated by the Sanders camp’s contention that they’re undermining the democratic process by refusing to vote with their states’ democratic electorates. “I’m kind of like a woman and her doctor, you know?” says Jim Frasier, an undecided superdelegate in Oklahoma. “It’s been between me, my God, and my conscience, and that’s where it’s supposed to be!”
#related#Others point to superdelegates’ specific role as tiebreakers, arguing that they shouldn’t be treated like pledged delegates and that, in fact, the Sanders campaign shouldn’t want them to be. “I assume the Sanders campaign would be more interested in having superdelegates across the country, in some cases, ignore how their states voted and shift Clinton to Sanders in order to close this gap,” says McDonald.
Even if Sanders’s efforts to woo superdelegates were bearing more fruit, though, it still likely wouldn’t make a difference. Most superdelegates, especially those backing Clinton, say they’ll vote for whichever candidate has the most pledged delegates by July. With few options to win pledged delegates outright and even fewer to pick them up through subterfuge, it’s increasingly unlikely that Sanders can convince a substantial number of superdelegates to flip by July.
So why is he still in the race?
“It’s not surprising that someone who’s invested this much time and this much effort, and has had a number of successes, would believe that there’s certainly a possibility that he could overtake Hillary by winning 60 percent — or whatever the percentage — of every state from here on in,” says Schaffer. “He looks at numbers differently than Nate Silver does, that’s all I can say.”
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.