First, Sanders said on CNN that he and his campaign will try to persuade un-pledged delegates — so-called “super-delegates,” who decide independent of the voting — to flip from supporting Clinton to supporting him instead, on the grounds that he is the more electable candidate in November.
Second, and more narrowly, Sanders also said on CNN that super-delegates in states that he won will feel pressure to support him, rather than Clinton, in order to honor the will of those states’ voters.
The problem with this second claim is that, even if it actually happened, it all but certainly would not make a difference to the outcome.
David Wasserman, who tracks the delegate math for the Cook Political Report, calculates that even if you awarded Sanders all of the super-delegates in the states he has won so far, it would still not be enough to overcome Clinton’s lead among super-delegates. That’s because many of the states that Sanders won are caucus states — with fewer super-delegates — while many of the states Clinton won have far more super-delegates.
“If you gave Bernie all of the super-delegates in the states he’s won, it wouldn’t be enough to reverse her super-delegate lead,” Wasserman tells me.
The math on this checks out. According to figures provided by the Democratic National Committee, here are the numbers of super-delegates in the states Sanders has won so far: New Hampshire (8). Colorado (12). Minnesota (16). Oklahoma (4). Vermont (10). Kansas (4). Nebraska (5). Maine (5). Michigan (17). Idaho (4). Utah (4). Alaska (4). Hawaii (10). Washington State (17). Democrats abroad (4).
The total number of super-delegates in all the states Sanders has won thus far is: 124. Clinton currently leads Sanders by 469-29 among super-delegates who have declared support for one candidate or the other, an advantage of 440. Giving Sanders all of those super-dels in states he won would not come close to closing that gap.
Tad Devine, a top strategist on the Sanders campaign, conceded to me that even if that scenario came to pass, it would not be enough. “She still has a very significant lead,” Devine told me. “She started off with a huge advantage in super delegates.”
It is possible that, if Sanders won in a string of upcoming states, particularly ones with lots of super-delegates — such as New York and California — and then persuaded all of the super-delegates in those states to support him, he might be able to edge ahead in super delegates. Getting a large chunk of the remaining undecided super-delegates (which number around 200) might also help. But that presumes a lot goes right for him.
Devine said that this was not meant to be taken as a hard-and-fast formula, and noted that Sanders’s broader aim is the more important one: getting super-delegates as a group, including in states that backed Clinton, to support him. But that runs into another problem: If Sanders is publicly saying it would flout the will of a state’s voters if super-delegates don’t support the winner of that state, doesn’t that also mean that Clinton should get all the super-delegates in the states she won? That would include people like Sanders-supporter Rep. Raul Grijalva in Arizona and the neutral Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts (both states that Clinton won).
Asked whether super-delegates in states won by Clinton should support Sanders, despite his suggestion that this would flout the will of those states’ voters, Devine demurred, saying the Sanders campaign was not looking to “enforce” any formula.
However, Sanders’ broader argument — that super-delegates should support him as an overall group — could also run into other potential problems. Cook Political Report’s Wasserman pointed out to me that even if Sanders were to overtake Clinton in the pledged delegate lead — she currently leads among them by over 200 — it is all but certain that Clinton would still remain ahead in the popular vote. This, again, is because Clinton has been winning in bigger states and running up big margins in some of them.
“He has no hope of overtaking Hillary Clinton in the popular vote,” Wasserman said. “At what point can you really convince super-delegates that you won the backing of the people to such a great extent that they should switch?”
Pressed on this point, Devine said that it was likely the Sanders campaign would call on super-delegates to switch even if Sanders were only leading in the pledged delegate count at the end of the primaries, while still trailing in the popular vote. He even said Sanders would call for this switch if Sanders trailed in the popular vote and was very close behind in the pledged delegate count, too.
“I think we have to see where we are,” Devine said, adding that if Sanders were just behind Clinton in the pledged delegate count and had lost the popular vote, “we’re going to make an argument that you should nominate Bernie Sanders.” Devine said the campaign would argue that such an end result was partly because Sanders didn’t contest certain states. “I do think it’s important to take a look at states where candidates have competed with each other,” he said.
The Clinton camp, for its part, has said that it intends to win outright among pledged delegates, as opposed to losing among them and relying on flipping the outcome with super-delegate support. That still looks like the most likely outcome.
None of this is to suggest that Sanders is certain to lose — there are a lot of delegate-rich contests to come! — or that Sanders should not press on. Sanders has every incentive to continue this for as long as possible. Even if Clinton does win at the end of the day, his challenge has clearly been a positive both for Clinton as a candidate and for the party as a whole. Sanders could also use any leverage he amasses by building national constituencies to prod the party into adopting more populist stances in the general election.
But if things continue on their current trajectory, it seems unlikely that a strategy of flipping super-delegates will make Sanders the nominee.