After the results this Saturday, Bernie Sanders is the runaway front-runner for the Democratic nomination. That much is acknowledged. But his opponents may be closer to acceptance than even they are willing to say.
The men and women running to be the Democratic nominee for president were asked a hypothetical question about whether they would support nominating the candidate who goes into the Democratic convention in the lead while still being short of locking up the nomination by the party’s rules. Only Bernie Sanders said yes, everyone else said no, they’d wait to see what happens in further votes.
This was an important and telling question.
It’s an important question because the process of nominating a Democrat has been reformed. Most of the states award their delegates proportionally; if you win 18 percent of the vote, you get 18 percent of that state’s delegates. A long multi-candidate contest in which Bernie Sanders consistently wins between 25 and 40 percent of primary voters, with other candidates trailing behind him, may not automatically yield a Bernie Sanders nomination. If someone isn’t nominated by a majority of delegates on the first vote at the convention, party leaders –– the superdelegates — will play a decisive role in the next round of votes.
By answering as they did, the candidates told us something important: Nobody expects to overtake Bernie Sanders between now and the convention. That is a startlingly admission that the hour is already late. And further, it is a declaration that the candidates might seek the nomination even if they came into the hall with less than one-third of the party already behind them. Indeed, it’s clear that they may already be seeking the nomination this way. Party elders can be flattered and cajoled even now.
This is clarifying but untenable. Democrats have adopted an exacting standard of democratic legitimacy in recent years. Republicans have a serious “dirt gap” advantage, because they represent the more sparsely populated states. Progressives have noticed this, as well as the increased urbanization of the country, and they have argued for constitutional reform or revolution to make the system more democratic, so that it might be more Democratic as well. The abolition of the Electoral College, the end of the Senate filibuster, the abolition of the Senate itself, the expansion of the number of states, and a drastic expansion of executive power have all been floated by Democrats in recent years as reforms that could make the system more like a winner-take-all, direct democracy.
A movement so disposed will find it extremely difficult to overturn the plurality winner of a multi-candidate contest, via the means contemplated: a few hundred party-elite superdelegates overruling the millions of voters.
And in this case, it will be especially difficult. The Sanders campaign is a political insurgency, and it includes a critique of overly timid or simply bought-off party elites. To emphasize his independence from party leadership, Sanders has not held office as a Democrat, though he caucuses with them. If voters make him the delegate leader going into the convention, it will be difficult to interpret this as anything other than a correction that they’re handing to the party’s leadership class. Sanders has played much nicer with Democrats overall than his socialist peer Jeremy Corbyn played with the existing Labour leadership in the United Kingdom. So, if he wins the popular vote among Democrats, rejecting him at the convention would be an act of fratricidal warfare by a party elite that can’t stand even a peaceful and democratic rebuke.
Because the costs to party unity and morale are so high, I don’t think party elites will do this. The superdelegate strategy by non-Sanders candidates is therefore apt to prove futile. Absent a major event interrupting the orderly procession of this primary campaign, what we saw this week was probably the first step in the long process by which Democrats accept Bernie Sanders as their leader.