Doing the superdelegate math for Democrats

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BOSTON – At stake in one critical area of the Democratic Party’s overall presidential nominating process: The 712 superdelegates who’ll arrive in Philadelphia for the national convention in July, typically having already decided on a candidate to support regardless of how many votes he or she won from the voting public.

To wrap up the nomination, either Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will need to secure a simple majority of all delegates – or at least 2,383 delegate votes.

The 712 superdelegates make up nearly 30 percent of that simple majority, giving them a potentially pivotal role. Technically, they are unpledged, so can vote for any candidate they choose.

But Clinton’s campaign as of Monday claimed a whopping 450 superdelegates in its corner, compared with a paltry 19 for Sanders, according to a tally of public announcements.

Sanders’s average performance against Clinton in the four states that held nominating contests is a lot closer, however, with narrow losses in Iowa and Nevada, a convincing win in New Hampshire and a big loss in South Carolina.

The “regular delegates” tally or delegates awarded to candidates by virtue of their performance in primaries and caucuses favors Clinton 91 to 65.

Putting the ‘super’ in ‘superdelegate’

Elaine Kamarck, a senior governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, rehashed the history of superdelegates in a February 2008 Harvard University paper. Kamarck pointed to the 1980 Democratic national convention, which featured a skirmish between then-President Jimmy Carter and rival Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts senator.

Following Carter’s 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan, Kamarck noted that Democratic members of Congress rallied together and demanded that a portion of their overall roster be allowed to participate in the party’s national conventions as “uncommitted voting delegates.” After some haggling, the result gave party insiders more control over nominations.

In February 2008, Geraldine Ferraro the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984 laid out the inner workings of the creation of party superdelegates in an essay for the New York Times. Ferraro recalled how the party formed a commission “which reformed the way the party selects its presidential nominees.”

“Democrats had to figure out a way to unify our party,” Ferraro wrote. “What better way, we reasoned, than to get elected officials involved in writing the platform, sitting on the credentials committee and helping to write the rules that the party would play by?”

In another February 2008 report, published in the Washington Post, Meredith McGehee, policy director for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, described the reason for creating superdelegates.

“There was a view that the Democratic party had allowed the grass roots to become too empowered and that in too many instances, people whose job it was to get Democrats elected were being shut out of the process,” she said.

Who counts as a superdelegate

The superdelegate roster includes every Democratic member of Congress, Ferraro noted, as well as governors, former presidents and vice presidents, members of the Democratic National Committee and former national committee leaders.

The inclusion of elected party members, Ferraro pointed out, meant that Democrats holding public office would not have to run during a primary election against a member of the public who also sought to become a convention delegate.

“Running against a constituent who really wants to be a delegate to the party’s national convention is not exactly good politics,” she added.

Being required as an office-holder to settle on a specific nominee to support is also a dicey proposition, however. The most significant Massachusetts superdelegate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has steadfastly remained mum on whether she’ll back Clinton or Sanders.

As of Monday, Sanders had secured exactly one superdelegate from the U.S. Senate himself.

Clinton’s count currently sits at 40. Even Sanders’s Vermont counterpart, Sen. Patrick Leahy, has publicly backed Clinton.

Is the ‘fix’ in?

Sanders’ supporters have frequently called out party leader Debbie Wasserman Schultz over an apparent bias favoring Clinton. Several weeks ago, CNN host Jake Tapper bluntly asked Wasserman Schultz about Sanders’s big win in New Hampshire and whether she believed Clinton’s support from Granite State superdelegates, leaving the New Hampshire convention delegation nearly equally divided, would give voters an impression that the system is “rigged.”

“Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists,” Wasserman Schultz said, referring to superdelegates.

What’s at stake on Tuesday

Super Tuesday, a day when 12 states (including Massachusetts), American Samoa and American registered Democrats living abroad, host primaries, will award a staggering total of 974 regular delegates to the party’s convention.

But Democrats abroad have until March 8 to vote.

In terms of superdelegates, Tuesday is not high on drama as the the current breakdown of superdelegates can already be described as a Clinton landslide: the former first lady has already claimed 105 compared with Sanders’s seven.

Super Tuesday states will send 160 superdelegates to the convention.