“During the course of 2008, over 120 superdelegates switched their quote-unquote allegiance in that process. In fact, there is a lot of movement of superdelegates in these contests.”
— Jeff Weaver, Sanders campaign manager, in an interview on MSNBC, May 2, 2016
To win the Democratic presidential nomination, a candidate needs a majority of the delegates to the convention. Most of the delegates — 4,051 pledged to vote for the candidate — are selected through primaries and caucuses. But there are also 714 “superdelegates,” who are elected officials, former elected officials and other eminence grises of the Democratic Party who can back whomever they want.
Hillary Clinton appears to be on track to win a majority of the pledged delegates. But because superdelegates make up 15 percent of the total delegate pool, neither Clinton nor Bernie Sanders can obtain the 2,383 delegates needed to clinch the nomination without the support of a good chunk of these superdelegates.
Since any superdelegate can change their vote up until the convention, that gives the Sanders campaign hope that it can sway enough minds by July 25, when the convention begins, even if Sanders lags in the pledged delegate count.
An example of this theory appears in the statement by Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver. He pointed to the fact that 120 superdelegates switched from Clinton to Obama in the contested 2008 campaign?
How accurate is this number?
The Sanders campaign provided a list of 116 superdelegates that it said had switched from Clinton to Obama. The list did not include the date that a superdelegate switched, which made us instantly suspicious. (The list is embedded below.)
Clinton dropped out of the race on June 7, when she gave her “18 million cracks” speech. By any reasonable calculation, switches by superdelegates after she conceded the race shouldn’t count.
On the Sanders list, one major oddity is that it includes 23 members of the New York congressional delegation. These lawmakers were among Clinton’s earliest and strongest supporters in 2008, and they adamantly refused to switch as long as she remained in the race. But on June 8, one day after Clinton dropped out, the entire New York congressional delegation collectively endorsed Obama.
“Dammit to hell we fight,” explained Rep. Charles Rangel. “When it’s over, we come together and go out there to win.”
So Rangel and the New York delegation considered the race to be “over,” but the Sanders campaign includes him and the rest of the delegation on a list of switchers.
Clinton also released her pledged delegates on Aug. 28, on the eve of the 2008 convention, meaning they were free to vote for anyone.
In a news article on Clinton releasing her delegates, then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine is quoted as saying the New Jersey delegation privately decided to switch to Obama in light of her decision to release her delegates. There are nine members of the New Jersey congressional delegation on the Sanders list — including Corzine. “I think it is reflective of the unity that I sense that is building across the party,” Corzine told USA Today.
So these were superdelegates who switched to Obama almost two months after Clinton dropped out of the race, when Clinton was encouraging everyone in the party to support Obama.
The best list we could find was maintained by the 2008 Superdelegate Transparency Project, which stopped counting switches on June 4.
This list shows 29 people switched from Clinton to Obama, though one later switched back to Clinton. That’s a total of 28. Some of these switches were undoubtedly noteworthy and symbolic, such as the announcement by civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis of Georgia on Feb. 14. But 18, including former vice president Walter Mondale, switched after the last primaries in South Dakota and Montana — and the same week Clinton dropped out. So it’s really just 10 people during the primary season.
Oddly, the Sanders list is missing some switchers, such as Mondale. But it includes New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who had never backed Clinton. He had sought the nomination and then later endorsed Obama.
Moreover, it’s important to recall that the gap between Obama and Clinton in superdelegates in 2008 was never as wide as the gap between Clinton and Sanders now.
In 2008, as of March 4, Obama had the support of 199 superdelegates and Clinton had 247. At that point in the race, Obama began to pull away from Clinton in terms of the number of pledged delegates he had won in primaries and caucuses.
When Obama edged ahead with more pledged delegates, that’s also when Clinton’s superdelegate count began to stall and Obama began to pick up more superdelegates. Most of these were not party officials who switched sides but people who had been on the fence, waiting to see who appeared likely to win the nomination. (In fact, only six people switched sides before Obama had accumulated more superdelegates than Clinton.)
By the beginning of May, Obama had won the support of more superdelegates than Clinton. By June, it had turned into a rout, with Obama attracting the support of 394.5 superdelegates and Clinton ending up with 280, according to a New York Times graphic. Superdelegates who switched constituted only 7 percent of Obama’s superdelegate tally.
By contrast, according to the Associated Press, Clinton, as of May 4 this year, has 522 superdelegates compared to 39 for Sanders. Clinton is just 178 delegates short of victory, meaning far more than 116 superdelegates would need to switch from Clinton to Sanders to make a difference in the outcome.
Just since March 31, Clinton has added 51 superdelegates, compared to eight for Sanders. She also has maintained a healthy lead of about 300 pledged delegates — far more than what Obama ever achieved during the tight 2008 contest. Indeed, senior Sanders adviser Tad Devine in early May told our colleague Greg Sargent that unless Sanders “significantly” closes the current pledged delegate gap with Clinton, it will be borderline “impossible” to persuade superdelegates to switch from Clinton to Sanders.
The Pinocchio Test
Weaver cast the 120 figure as happening “in the course of 2008” and said it demonstrated “a lot of movement” in allegiance to the two candidates. But the record shows the opposite. Just 10 people switched from Clinton to Obama before the last primary votes were cast. The number grows to 28 if you include people who switched just before Clinton dropped out on June 7.
But it’s highly misleading to count delegates who switched after Clinton dropped out of the race — and she began to urge party unity behind Obama. Weaver earns Four Pinocchios.
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