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Bernie Sanders' Chances At The Nomination Count On Superdelegates


In the race for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton is ahead of Bernie Sanders by more than 200 delegates. That's pledged delegates. These are the people who, following primary and caucus outcomes, are expected to vote in a predictable way at the party's nominating convention in July.


Then there are the superdelegates. These are the delegates who are allowed to vote at the convention anyway they want.

CORNISH: The superdelegates are Democratic-elected officials - senators, members of the House, governors - but also notable party leaders like former presidents and past DNC chairmen. Altogether, this group makes up 15 percent of the total delegate count - a hefty chunk.

SHAPIRO: So far, more than 400 superdelegates say Clinton has their vote. Sanders has gotten a thumbs-up from about 30. And then lots more have yet to make up their minds. Never mind that all of them are free to change their position right up to the convention in July.

CORNISH: That's right. So if Bernie Sanders has any hope of being the candidate, he must train his focus on wooing more of these superdelegates to his side.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tamara Keith brings us this report about Sanders supporters going rogue to do just that.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: To Bernie Sanders supporters, the idea that superdelegates could tip the nomination to Hillary Clinton seems terribly undemocratic. And so they've started several online petitions. One calls for the elimination of superdelegates altogether. Another asked superdelegates to align their choice with regular voters, not party elites, and it has more than 200,000 signatures. Jerry Theeny (ph) and Robin Coracco (ph) are a husband-and-wife team of Sanders supporters from Wisconsin.

JERRY THEENY: We think that in a democracy it should go on popular vote.

ROBIN CORACCO: We're optimistic also that the superdelegates, you know, that have said they're going to support Hillary will in fact - once the popular vote is in and Bernie has, you know, the count - that they will in fact get behind Bernie Sanders.

KEITH: It must be noted that at this point, more than halfway through the primary process, Hillary Clinton is ahead by more than 2 million popular votes. And for the Sanders campaign itself, superdelegates are now an integral part of the plan for winning the nomination.

JEFF WEAVER: Nobody is going to arrive in Philadelphia with enough delegates to win the nomination.

KEITH: Jeff Weaver is Sanders' campaign manager.

WEAVER: And the superdelegates don't vote until you actually get into the convention process, so there's not a lot of talk about how the Republicans are going into an open convention. Well, the truth of matter is it looks like the Democrats are going into an open convention as well.

KEITH: And while the Sanders campaign isn't yet actively trying to flip superdelegates, Sanders supporters have taken it into their own hands. This week, a Sanders fan named Spencer Thayer created the Superdelegate Hit List, a website to compile the contact information of superdelegates, so they can be persuaded.

Thayer, who answered my questions over email later, changed the name simply to Superdelegate List. He says the old name had been a distraction. In reality, superdelegates have been hearing from Sanders supporters for months, and it's not always pleasant. Akilah Ross Ensley is with the Young Democrats of America, and she's a superdelegate who plans to support Clinton. Here's what showed up recently on her Facebook page.

AKILAH ROSS ENSLEY: You should be ashamed of yourself. Maybe you will do some soul-searching and have some integrity and think about the decisions you're making and its implications.

KEITH: Ensley says she's been called names, and there have been expletives.

ENSLEY: They said, you know, you should go to hell. How dare you vote against your own interest as an African-American woman. I expected you would be smarter than that.

KEITH: When I told Clinton-backing superdelegate Joyce Elliott she was on what at the time was called the Superdelegate Hit List, she was taken aback.

JOYCE ELLIOTT: That is very interesting. I - as far as I know, this is probably the second time I've been on a hit list, and the other one was not pleasant.

KEITH: Elliott is a state senator in Arkansas, and the last time she was on a hit list, it was over legislation she had introduced. That time, she says, the FBI got involved. This list isn't as scary, although she has heard from 20 or 30 Sanders supporters trying to get her to switch.

ELLIOTT: Some of them will tell me, you know, how awful Hillary is, therefore I should support Bernie, and, you know, tell me how great Bernie is. And that's the kind of thing I think that is not helpful.

KEITH: For Ken Martin, the chair of the Minnesota Democratic Party, the flow of messages is constant - 20 a day, he says. His state went for Sanders in the caucuses. And the pressure to switch from Clinton to Sanders is intense.

KEN MARTIN: Someone received my cell phone number, and they posted that. And so I'm getting calls on my personal cell phone from people all over the country.

KEITH: I told the creator of the superdelegate list that people were feeling harassed and unpersuaded. He wrote that most of the callers are probably polite, and he added if superdelegates aren't prepared to deal with the public, they shouldn't be party officials. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: This need to court superdelegates hasn't always been a part of the Democratic nominating process. For most of the Democratic Party's history, the nominee was chosen strictly by party elites.

CORNISH: In the early 1970s, the party started opening up, giving voters more of a say, and the result was not so great for the party. The first candidate picked was George McGovern. He was a champion of liberal causes, and he was trounced by Richard Nixon in the general election. He lost 49 states out of 50. And then there was Jimmy Carter who eked out a win, but wasn't re-elected.

SHAPIRO: So by the early '80s, the party decided to bring back the elites. And the hybrid system we have today was created, mostly Democratic but with a pretty big party establishment check.

CORNISH: Raul Grijalva is one of those party elites. He's a Democratic congressman from Arizona and a superdelegate. He's pledged his vote to Bernie Sanders. But he also takes issue with the overall system. Congressman, welcome to the program.

RAUL GRIJALVA: Thank you. It's great to be here with you, and I appreciate it very much.

CORNISH: Now, as we mentioned, the system was created in reaction to big presidential losses, right? The establishment wanted to in a sense keep out radical candidates that they didn't think could survive a general election. So isn't that what's happening here?

GRIJALVA: I believe that there is still a sense among the leadership of our party that feels that Bernie Sanders in this movement around his campaign can't win in the general, and so this whole - this is put in as a check and balance, as a rudder to try to keep everything in the center in terms of the convention and the candidate. I think that it's not representative, and I think the party is forging in a different direction. And we need to be responsive to that, and I don't think the current process is capable of doing that.

CORNISH: Now, Bernie Sanders has been making a similar point. Here he is speaking at an MSNBC Town Hall.


BERNIE SANDERS: I think what people should be saying to superdelegates, look, if Bernie Sanders wins the state with a big vote, why don't you vote with the people of your state?

CORNISH: Now, Congressman you're from Arizona. Arizona went to Hillary Clinton in the state's primaries. So why aren't you aligning yourself with the primary voters of your state?

GRIJALVA: Well, when this election began, quite honestly, Bernie was in single digits in terms of support. We came all the way up to 42, 43 percent. Bernie did very well in the congressional district that I represent. But more importantly, for me, it was both a conscience vote that - I think I was one of the first superdelegate to endorse - for a member of Congress to endorse Bernie. It's also about a message that is important to our party. And I feel a responsibility to uphold that message...

CORNISH: But in this case, it sounds like you're taking advantage of the fact that you can vote anyway you want - right? You're not necessarily...

GRIJALVA: To some extent, you're absolutely right, and I don't want to be righteous about that. The fact remains that this has been a contest of grace. I think those of us that are with Bernie feel more than an obligation to him personally, but an obligation to structurally have an effect on this party and reform some of its issues. That includes the position that I hold which is a superdelegate position. Out of the numbers - too many - I think that has to be talked about. How they're selected has to be dealt with. And that could be part of a reform package that I think makes our party stronger going into the future.

CORNISH: What would be a better system in your view?

GRIJALVA: I think superdelegates should have some reflections of the popular vote. And the selection process at the state level and by party leaders, I think, has to be revised entirely. It's not only reflective of a popular vote, but I think more reflective - I think the coalition that is building around the Democratic Party that involves people of color, that involves the young, that involves women. And how we do that, you know, that's up to the convention and to all of us.

CORNISH: Congressman Grijalva, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GRIJALVA: Thank you.

CORNISH: That was Congressman Raul Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona and one of 30 or so superdelegates backing Bernie Sanders.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous audio introduction to this story incorrectly said the New York primary is next Tuesday. It is actually a week from next Tuesday.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 7, 2016 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story stated that in the race for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are "pretty close." To be more precise, the story has been updated to include the number of delegates by which Clinton leads Sanders.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.