The vast majority of U.S. establishment media organizations report Democratic Party “super delegates,” as if they are part of the delegate totals presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are winning in primaries. However, this is incredibly misleading, and whether intended or not, it essentially serves to strengthen Clinton’s campaign against Sanders.
As of March 6, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press report Clinton has 1,121 delegates after primaries and caucuses in Kansas, Nebraska, and Louisiana. The outlets report Sanders has 481 delegates. These numbers are untruthful.
True and accurate numbers are the following: after “Super Saturday,” Clinton has 663 pledged delegates. Sanders has 459 pledged delegates. Clinton needs 1,720 delegates to win. Sanders needs 1,924 delegates to win.
Sanders is a few hundred delegates behind Clinton, and Clinton has over a thousand delegates to go before she clinches the nomination. Put like that, one’s view of the race is probably dramatically different than the views being pushed by establishment media outlets.
The above numbers are accurate because “super delegates,” or party leaders, can shift their support at any time. If Sanders wins more primaries than Clinton, there is no reason to think the vast majority of “super delegates” would defy voters and go with Clinton over Sanders. Doing so would be devastating for the party, especially going into an election against a populist Republican candidate like Donald Trump.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s Jim Naureckas has called attention to the fact that the Times used to report delegate counts as if they were only a result of “voters who mattered.” Naureckas wrote, “The unpledged superdelegates can only indicate who they intend to vote for, which is not necessarily who they will actually vote for; they can and in the past have changed their minds. Counting them the same as pledged delegates is a bit like counting delegates from states that haven’t voted yet because voters in those states tell pollsters they intend to vote for one candidate or the other. They may or may not feel differently when the time comes.”
In 2008, when Clinton ran against then-Senator Barack Obama, the Times treated the number of pledged delegates as the accurate and current delegate count in the race. The Times counted “only delegates that have been officially selected and are bound by their preferences.”
“The way the media has been reporting this is incorrect,” DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said on MSNBC on February 27. “There aren’t pledged delegates, i.e. super delegates, earned at any of these primary or caucus contests. Those unpledged delegates are elected officials, party leaders, people who have spent years and years in the Democratic Party. Members of Congress, our DNC members are super delegates. And they have the ability to decide who they choose to support at the convention at any point.”
“They’re really free to decide all the way up until July,” Wasserman Schultz added. She later added that combining “super delegates” with “pledged delegates” from primaries or caucuses at each phase of the contest does not provide an “accurate picture” of how this works.
In other words, when MSNBC puts up graphics like this, it is not reporting the truth of what is unfolding in the primary race:
It also is important to acknowledge Google has a data visualization for each primary result that appears when people are searching for news related to primaries or caucuses in the election. Google includes “super delegates” in their delegate totals, and this has the effect of deceiving millions into believing Sanders has no chance at all because Clinton’s lead is too vast to overcome.
Tad Devine, who is now a senior adviser for the Sanders campaign, wrote in a column for the Times in 2008, “If the superdelegates determine the party’s nominee before primary and caucus voters have rendered a clear verdict, Democrats risk losing the trust that we are building with voters today. The perception that the votes of ordinary people don’t count as much as those of the political insiders, who get to pick the nominee in some mythical back room, could hurt our party for decades to come.”
He recounted an experience he had working for Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign, which is exceptionally relevant to what is currently unfolding:
On the first Wednesday in June, the morning after the last day of voting in the 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the long, drawn-out battle that began with Gary Hart’s stunning victory in New Hampshire ended — but only after one last plot twist. I was Walter Mondale’s delegate counter, and I had stayed up all night to estimate the delegates won and lost in the five states, including California and New Jersey, that had voted the day before. I realized we were in big trouble. Mr. Mondale was not going to deliver on his pledge to be over the top in the delegate count by noon on the day after the last primary. He fell 40 delegates short of a majority.
We began a frantic morning of telephone calls to superdelegates, the party leaders and elected officials who only two years earlier had been given 15 percent of the vote in the Democratic nominating process. By noon, the former vice president had persuaded enough delegates to ensure himself the nomination. The superdelegates did the work they were created to do: they provided the margin of victory to the candidate who had won the most support from primary and caucus voters.
Given this history, a similar shift could easily happen again. Sanders could win a majority of primaries and caucuses, and “super delegates” could follow the will of citizens and provide the margin of victory necessary for his campaign to win the nomination.
One can make a case that the “super delegate” system was instituted to guard against insurgent campaigns, like the one mounted by Sanders. He promotes a vision that runs counter to the corporate and special interests, which the Democratic Party leadership is perfectly willing to serve. And, in fact, Wasserman Schultz has been frank, saying, “Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.”
But, regardless of how one views the “super delegate” system, “super delegates” are not part of the pledged delegate count. They should not be part of delegate counts reported after the results of each primary or caucus is tallied.
Sanders has an exceptionally difficult route ahead of him if his campaign and supporters expect to win. However, it is not wholly unreasonable to suggest there is still a “path to victory” for Sanders. And any media outlet, which reports “super delegates” as part of one lump sum, is doing the Clinton campaign a huge favor, whether that outlet intends to do so or not.
Update – March 10: As of March 9, the New York Times has changed how they display delegate counts, and the super delegates are no longer included along with pledged delegates in the numbers. Undoubtedly, this is in response to the growing outcry against the media for inaccurately displaying delegate totals.