When the Associated Press projected Monday night that Hillary Clinton had clinched the Democratic nomination, the rebuttal from Bernie Sanders and his allies was swift and fierce. It was a “rush to judgment,” the campaign said, because superdelegates don't cast their votes until the July convention.
“I was really disappointed in what the AP did,” Sanders told NBC’s Nightly News in an interview Tuesday, expressing concern that the report will depress turnout in California and the five other primaries. “Superdelegates are different than pledged delegates. Superdelegates have a very important decision to make.”
Sanders' surrogates vented their frustrations about the AP's calculations to Politico. “Appalling,” said senior campaign adviser Mark Longabaugh. “Scandalous,” said former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, who accused “establishment media” of “suppressing the vote in the most vile, vicious way I've seen.”
The defiance reflects the last gasps of a campaign that has exceeded expectations and inspired millions of Americans in a remarkable run, but is poised to finish the primaries trailing Clinton in the popular vote and among pledged delegates, thereby lacking a compelling case for superdelegates to defect and crown him the nominee at the Philadephia convention.
Before she won contests over the weekend in Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, Clinton led Sanders by 2.9 million popular votes (a figure that includes caucuses) according to a Washington Post analysis last month. She led by 291 pledged delegates and 528 superdelegates ahead of Tuesday's contests, according to AP.
Even if Sanders wins all seven remaining primaries, proportional delegate allocation rules give him no realistic change of catching Clinton in pledged delegates, forcing him to resort to asking superdelegates to contradict the will of the voters.
“Our goal is to get as many delegates as we possibly can and to make the case to superdelegates that, I believe, the evidence is fairly strong, that I am the strongest candidate,” Sanders told reporters Monday in San Francisco.
Since the advent of the superdelegate system in the 1980s, which was arguably designed to defeat outsider candidates, it has never usurped the pledged delegate winner—including in 2008, when Barack Obama finished narrowly ahead of Clinton in pledged delegates. There's no reason to expect that will change now with Sanders, particularly given his criticisms of the Democratic establishment and Clinton's longstanding ties to party elites.
Sanders said Monday he has “seen a little bit of momentum” in the effort to court superdelegates based on “private conversations” (he currently has 48 superdelegates, to Clinton's 571). Pressed on his superdelegate strategy, he changed the topic back to pledged delegates. “Tomorrow, we have 475 pledged delegates coming up. My job in the next 24 hours is to do everything that I can to win those delegates,” Sanders said.
Courting superdelegates while losing the popular vote is an especially awkward strategy for Sanders, who argued last month that the superdelegate system—where hundreds of party elites can vote for any candidate—is undemocratic and “stacks the deck in a very, very unfair way for any establishment candidate, and against the wishes of the people.”
Sanders' case for the nomination largely comes down to general-election polls that show him outperforming Clinton in a hypothetical match-up against Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. Sanders makes the case often on the campaign trail and in television interviews. His challenge is that many Democratic elites, and Republican strategists, say Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who is relatively undefined among a general electorate, will be easier prey for the GOP attack machine.
In the primary, conservatives including Karl Rove's group American Crossroads and donor Joe Ricketts have run ads attacking Clinton or attempting to subtly boost Sanders. Former Republican presidential candidate John Kasich quipped during a debate that if Sanders is the nominee, “we're going to win every state.”
The Vermont senator has also complained about “closed” primaries in some states, in which registered independents, who have tended to favor Sanders over Clinton, cannot vote. But Sanders has benefited from caucuses that tend to produce considerably lower voter turnout.
Sanders closed his press conference on Monday with a series of arguments attesting to his strong performance, but with a less than compelling case that he has outshone Clinton.
“We have now won 20 states,” he said. (Twenty-one, actually, but Clinton has won 28 states or territories.)
“We have now won well over 9 million votes.” (About three million fewer than Clinton.)
“We have won every state that we have contested in.” (In fact, Sanders fought hard in—and lost—states like Iowa, Nevada, Illinois, Ohio, and New York.)
“In overwhelming numbers, we are winning the support of people 45 years or age or younger.” (Then he admitted he wasn't doing as well among older voters.)
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said Sanders' push to challenge Clinton for superdelegates at the convention was “useless.”
“I don't think it makes any sense to do that,” she said in the U.S. Capitol building. “I don't understand what he's using to go and think superdelegates are going to change. I'm a superdelegate. I mean, I've given my word, our word matters.”
She also doubted that Sanders' defiance may give him a bigger say in the platform.
“By ticking everybody off, I don't think that's the way to do it,” she said.
—With assistance from Steven T. Dennis in Washington.