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Superdelegates Might Not Save Hillary Clinton

If you look at a Democratic delegate tracker like this one from The New York Times, you’ll find that Hillary Clinton has a massive 394-44 delegate lead over Bernie Sanders so far, despite having been walloped by Sanders in New Hampshire and only essentially having tied him in Iowa. While Sanders does have a modest 36-32 lead among elected delegates — those that are bound to the candidates based on the results of voting in primaries and caucuses — Clinton leads 362-8 among superdelegates, who are Democratic elected officials and other party insiders allowed to support whichever candidate they like.

If you’re a Sanders supporter, you might think this seems profoundly unfair. And you’d be right: It’s profoundly unfair. Superdelegates were created in part to give Democratic party elites the opportunity to put their finger on the scale and prevent nominations like those of George McGovern in 1972 or Jimmy Carter in 1976, which displeased party insiders.

Here’s the consolation, however. Unlike elected delegates, superdelegates are unbound to any candidate even on the first ballot. They can switch whenever they like, and some of them probably will switch to Sanders if he extends his winning streak into more diverse states and eventually appears to have more of a mandate than Clinton among Democratic voters.

Clinton knows this all too well; it’s exactly what happened to her in 2008 during her loss to Barack Obama. According to the website Democratic Convention Watch,1 Clinton began with a substantial advantage in superdelegates, leading Obama 154 to 50 when New Hampshire voted on Jan. 8, 2008. Obama narrowed his deficit in February and March, however, and overtook Clinton in superdelegates in mid-May. By the time Clinton ended her campaign on June 7, 2008, Obama had nearly a 2-to-1 superdelegate advantage over her.


For the most part, these superdelegates had not previously been linked with a candidate when they pledged their support to Obama, but there were also several dozen superdelegates who switched from Clinton to Obama, including some high-profile ones such as Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Back to bad news for Sanders supporters: Clinton begins with a far larger superdelegate lead over Sanders than she ever had over Obama. It’s easy to imagine why they might resist switching, furthermore. Unlike Obama, who was perhaps roughly as “electable” as Clinton, Sanders is a 74-year-old self-described socialist. Unlike Obama, who had the chance to become the first black president, Sanders is another old white guy (although he would be the first Jewish president). Sanders wasn’t even officially a Democrat until last year. I’m not saying these are necessarily great arguments, but they’re the sorts of arguments that Clinton-supporting superdelegates will make to themselves and one another, in part because the superdelegate system was created precisely to help nominate candidates considered more electable by party leaders.

But how close would the outcome have to be for superdelegates to tip the nomination to Clinton? You can find that calculation in the table below.

58.8% 0.0%
55.0 21.6
52.5 35.8
50.0 50.1
47.5 64.3
45.0 78.5
41.2 100.0
How far can superdelegates get you?

Superdelegates are mathematically relevant when a candidate has 41.2 percent to 58.8 percent of elected delegates. Below that range, a candidate couldn’t win a first-ballot majority even with the votes of every superdelegate; above that range, the superdelegates’ help wouldn’t be necessary to clinch the nomination.

That’s still a fairly wide range, however. In theory, for example, a candidate could lose elected delegates 58 percent to 42 percent — equivalent2 to losing the average state by 16 percentage points — and still win the nomination through superdelegates.

My guess, especially given what we saw in 2008, is that superdelegates wouldn’t feel comfortable weighing in anywhere near that much on Clinton’s behalf. In the case where she’s won only 42 percent of elected delegates, she’ll have lost to Sanders all over the map, and any conceivable “electability” gains from nominating Clinton would be outweighed by alienating at least half of the Democratic base.

If it’s closer, however, superdelegates could make a difference. Suppose that Clinton wins 47.5 percent of elected delegates to Sanders’s 52.5 percent — equivalent to her losing the average state by 5 percentage points. According to our formula, Clinton would then need only about 64 percent of superdelegates to win the nomination, a figure that seems realistic.

What you’re likely to see in close cases like these is competing claims to legitimacy, with Democratic party elites showing their bias by interpreting the evidence in favor of Clinton. Suppose, for instance, that Sanders is slightly ahead in elected delegates but slightly behind in the overall popular vote, which could happen if he overperforms in caucus states.3 Clinton supporters will argue that popular votes are the truer measure of support. More exotic options might include citing national polls (if Clinton is still ahead in them by June) or the number of states she’s won (if she’s won more than Sanders). If Clinton starts out well behind Sanders but then narrows her deficit, the elites may argue that momentum was in her favor.

It’s hard to know the exact point at which such claims go from laughable to credible, but my guess is that it’s somewhere around the 5 percentage point gap that I mentioned earlier. So superdelegates do provide some advantage to Clinton: They’ll break a true tie in her favor, and perhaps anything that can reasonably be described as a tie in her favor also. It’s just not the massive advantage implied by the delegate count so far.

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  1. Although the original source of 2008 delegate counts is Democratic Convention Watch, I retrieved their estimates through the archived version of this Wikipedia page, which regularly linked to Democratic Convention Watch over the course of the campaign.

  2. Democratic delegate allocations are highly proportional to the vote in each state, so it’s fair to make this comparison.

  3. Caucuses have lower turnout, and therefore provide more bang for the buck relative to the number of voters.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.