Democracy Dies in Darkness

Fact Checker

Bernie Sanders's 'factually incorrect' delegate math

By Glenn Kessler

June 2, 2016 at 3:00 AM

"Literally eight months before the first ballot was cast in Iowa, she had almost all of the superdelegates on board. That is an absurd system. … Now, on Tuesday night, on the 7th, you are going to hear from media saying that Hillary Clinton has received 80 or 90 delegates from New Jersey and other states … the nominating process is over, Secretary Clinton has won. That is factually incorrect. That is just not factually correct."

— Sen. Bernie Sanders, speech in Santa Cruz, Calif., May 31

Sanders has complained regularly about the "absurd" system used in the Democratic Party presidential nomination process — a combination of 4,051 delegates elected through primaries and caucuses and then 714  superdelegates,  who are elected officials, former elected officials and other éminences grises of the Democratic Party who can back whomever they want. (There are actually 718 people with that title who will cast 714 votes. The eight superdelegates from Democrats Abroad get half a vote.)

Hillary Clinton is on track to win a majority of the pledged delegates, almost certainly by June 7. But because superdelegates make up 15 percent of the total delegate pool, neither Clinton nor Sanders can obtain the 2,383 delegates needed to clinch the nomination without the support of superdelegates.

But the irony is that without the superdelegate system in place, Sanders likely would be toast on June 7, when six states essentially complete the primary process, including California with its 475 delegates. (There is also a vote on June 14 in D.C. to award 20 delegates.) So Sanders is complaining about a system that is actually keeping hope alive for his supporters, on the theory that superdelegates can change their vote any time before the convention starts in late July. But it's a false hope.

Let's look at the math.

Basic delegate math

According to the Associated Press, the gold standard for counting delegates, there are 4,051 pledged delegates. So a majority would be 2,026.

Clinton has won 1,769 delegates. So she is 257 short of a majority in pledged delegates.

Sanders has won 1,501 delegates. So he needs 525 delegates to win a majority.

Counting votes in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands over the weekend, there are 761 delegates that will be selected through June 7.

So Clinton needs 34 percent of those delegates, a number she will certainly win, given the Democrats' system of proportional allocations. Sanders needs 69 percent, an almost impossibly high bar.

So, even without the superdelegates, Clinton would have won the Democratic nomination fair and square.

But she actually has 543 superdelegates in her camp (compared with 44 for Sanders). That leaves her just 71 delegates short of 2,383 needed to clinch the nomination.

Sanders claims it would be "factually incorrect" for the media to declare Clinton the presumptive nominee once she crosses the 2,383 threshold. But he is ignoring the fact that Clinton will also win a majority of the pledged delegates. There's not much of a case he can make to superdelegates to switch sides, especially since he has long insisted that superdelegates should follow the will of the voters.

Indeed, senior Sanders adviser Tad Devine in early May told our colleague Greg Sargent that unless Sanders "significantly" closes the pledged delegate gap with Clinton, it will be borderline "impossible" to persuade superdelegates to switch from Clinton to Sanders.

Misleading timeline

Sanders also offers a misleading timeline about Clinton's accumulation of superdelegates.

Watch more!
You've probably heard the term "superdelegates" recently – but what is a superdelegate, and why do they matter in this election? (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

As he put it in an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation," "you have a situation where over 400 superdelegates came on board Clinton's campaign before anybody else was in the race, eight months before the first vote was cast." In the Santa Cruz speech, Sanders claimed "literally eight months before the first ballot was cast in Iowa, she had almost all of the superdelegates on board."

Neither statement is factually correct.

Sanders appears to have selected eight months before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses because he announced his run for the presidency on April 30, 2015 — more than eight months before Iowa. It makes it sound like the deck was stacked against him even before he got into the race.

But the earliest superdelegate count we find is a Bloomberg Politics article late August — four months after Sanders got into the race — claiming that 440 superdelegates were privately backing Clinton. (At the time she had 130 public commitments.) That's about 60 percent of the delegates, not "almost all."

Moreover, this was not an official count. It was not until November — about three months before the first votes — that the AP surveyed superdelegates and came up with a count of 359 for Clinton, compared with eight for Sanders and two for former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley. So that was over six months after Sanders got into the race.

The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The Pinocchio Test

In complaining about superdelegates, Sanders is trying to have his cake and eat it, too. If not for the "absurd" superdelegate system, Sanders's presidential hopes would firmly die on June 7.

Thus Sanders is misleading his supporters when he suggests it is "factually incorrect" for the media to crown Clinton the presumptive nominee on June 7. In a narrow technical sense, the nominee is not chosen until the convention. But, barring some miracle, on June 7, Sanders will have lost the race for both pledged delegates and superdelegates. That leaves him with no hope to claim the nomination–unless he wants to overturn the will of the voters. But respecting the will of the voters was the original reason he complained about the superdelegate system in the first place.

Three Pinocchios

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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.

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