Rachel Binah was watching TV in her California home when the bad news came through: Hillary Clinton had effectively won the Democratic presidential nomination. Binah, a superdelegate who had pledged to remain uncommitted until Tuesday’s primary, was perfectly ready to back Clinton.
But she bristled at fellow superdelegates pulling the trigger instead of voters. The hard work of healing the party had gotten harder — and for what, a 24-hour scoop?
“I believe everybody should have a chance to vote without feeling it doesn’t count,” Binah said. “There’s enough being discussed on TV already with jumping ahead like this. Even the people who were talking about it on TV seemed to be embarrassed by what they were doing.”
Binah, a longtime environmental activist, had already spent months apologizing for her hard-won party role. There were 719 superdelegates, activists whose votes are not bound to any primary, and 517 of them had been accused of “rigging” the primary for Clinton by endorsing her ahead of the party convention in July, when they will actually cast their votes.
The rest were shamed for allowing this system to exist. A collection of elected officials, union representatives and local activists, who had spent years building the party, were suddenly agents of oligarchy. Since their creation in 1982 by a Democratic Party that wanted to give insiders a greater convention role, superdelegates had never flouted the will of the voters.
They hadn’t this year, either. Yet on Tuesday, the conservative New York Post ran a cover with a cartoon of Clinton crawling across a finish line; the liberal New York Daily News columnist Shaun King condemned the “nefarious and underhanded” act.
“This is the perfect symbolic ending to the Democratic Party primary,” scoffed Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept, a magazine that has run multiple critical exposés of lobbyists serving as superdelegates. “The nomination is consecrated by a media organization, on a day when nobody voted, based on secret discussions with anonymous establishment insiders and donors whose identities the media organization — incredibly — conceals.”
In a blowout primary like 2000 or 2004, the existence of superdelegates can slip right past the electorate. In 2008, the superdelegates became infamous — and essential. That year, as in this one, they helped the party’s front-runner cross the threshold by releasing endorsements around the final primary.
The irony was that the 2008 election, a near-tie, ended with pro-Clinton superdelegates flipping to support then-Sen. Barack Obama. (Rachel Binah was among them.) The 2016 cycle began with superdelegates rallying around Clinton, and ended with Sen. Bernie Sanders getting his teeming crowds to jeer at how these dinosaurs of the establishment padded her lead “before a single vote was cast.”
Yet by the end of Tuesday’s voting in six states, Clinton is expected to have won a majority of pledged delegates, too — meaning that even if superdelegates hadn’t existed this year, she still would have won the nomination.
Nonetheless, the drama surrounding the system has rattled the superdelegates, most of whom want to save the system but some of whom are ready to let it die.
“Superdelegates should be eliminated,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Sanders’s lone endorser in the Senate. “Those of us in elected office, we have an elevated opportunity to influence people — and that should be enough.”
“I’d like to see the role of superdelegates eliminated,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who like nearly every senator had endorsed Clinton, but whose state gave Sanders a huge caucus win. “I see no purpose in the superdelegates, other than the theoretical possibility that they could overturn the primary process, which would be cataclysmic and unfair. You have this anachronistic aspect of our primary process which only serves to undermine the legitimacy of it.”
Some superdelegates were startled to think of themselves, of their role, in those terms. Ana Cuprill, the chairwoman of Wyoming’s Democratic Party, was shocked to watch the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” and see comedians riff that her state had been rigged for Clinton. Kate McKinnon was playing the front-runner, and Larry David was playing Sanders, the two of them drinking to the end of the primary.
“Remember all those states like Wyoming where you beat me by a lot, but I still got most of the delegates?” McKinnon asked.
“That was so stupid,” David said. “It’s rigged!”
“I know, it’s so rigged!” McKinnon said as the studio audience roared.
“I was not impressed by that sketch,” Cuprill said. “I don’t consider myself an insider. I’m a librarian, I’m a mom, who got inspired to work in Democratic politics by Barack Obama. I’d never attended a county party meeting before 2008, and now I’m writing the rules for the party. If anyone’s angry about the primary, don’t stay angry — stay involved!”
Chad Nodland, a North Dakota superdelegate, had stayed involved with the Democrats since the 1980s, when he rebooted the College Dems chapter at the state’s biggest university. He’d endorsed Sanders this cycle, and was as unhappy as anyone that the media called the election right before his state’s caucuses.
“One side of me says we need a cushion to avoid having a Donald Trump in the Democratic Party — someone who comes in and wrecks it,” Nodland said. “At the same time, I don’t know that the right buffer is superdelegates. I hope someone sets up an ad hoc committee to fix it.”
“I get the theoretical rationale for having superdelegates,” said John Wisniewski, a New Jersey assemblyman and superdelegate for Sanders who heads the senator’s campaign in that state. “What I find unfair is that a great number of the superdelegates Secretary Clinton is counting in her column pledged to her before there was a choice. This year’s done, but maybe there’s a period of time before which superdelegates should not pledge to a candidate. If there’s an opportunity for additional folks to get into the race, maybe you shouldn’t be committing.”
That was as far as some superdelegates would go. The process, as attackable as it had become, handed clout to people who seemed to deserve it. Binah, the uncommitted California delegate, had wanted to meet with Clinton and Sanders to talk about ocean pollution before she gave an endorsement. Clinton flipped one Virgin Islands delegate when her campaign gave some concrete promises about how her presidency could help the territory.
Bob Bragar, one of eight Democrats Abroad delegates, backed Clinton after a political lifetime of fighting for gay rights. In the 1990s, he followed a Dutch boyfriend to the Netherlands. “When Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, I knew that meant I’d be stuck outside the United States,” Bragar said. “That was my politicizing moment. I wasn’t going to be able to keep my marriage in my own country if I didn’t fight.”
For two decades, Bragar used his position in the Democratic Party to lobby against DOMA. He won. Sticking around and fighting, even if it meant years of networking, paid off. “Everybody is free to change the system,” he said.
In the meantime, the defenders of the system wanted to celebrate their victory — just as soon as Clinton clinched it with Tuesday’s primaries. Bob Mulholland, a sharp-tongued California superdelegate who accused Sanders voters of harassing his peers, said that the superdelegates elevated the process.
“Those 4,054 pledged delegates are freshmen,” Mulholland said. “Those people who don’t want governors and senators to play a role in the convention don’t know what they’re asking for. I don’t ever want to go to a national convention run by freshmen. I want to see gray hair.”