Op-Ed: Can superdelegates be convinced to support Bernie Sanders? Unlikely, but not impossible

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is struggling to sway Democratic superdelegates from his rival in the presidential race. Above, Sanders greets supporters before speaking at a rally in Baltimore on April 23.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Bernie Sanders supporters aren’t big fans of the Democratic Party’s superdelegates, the political insiders who get a personal say in the nomination of the party’s presidential candidate. These governors, members of Congress and other officials aren’t obligated to follow the popular vote, and their preference so far for Hillary Clinton has buttressed a central tenet of her campaign — the inevitability of her nomination. It comes as no small irony, then, that it is the very existence of superdelegates that will allow the Sanders campaign to take its call for a political revolution, and its quest for the nomination, all the way to the party convention in Philadelphia in July.

It’s all but impossible for either Clinton or Sanders to amass enough pledged delegates to ensure the nomination before the convention. To achieve the 2,383 votes needed just through pledged delegates, Clinton would need to take 77% of those still up for grabs in the remaining primaries and caucuses, even though her portion of those elected so far is just 54%. Sanders could not reach the mark even if he were to win all of the remaining pledged delegates. This puts the Democratic nomination squarely in the hands of the party’s 714 superdelegates.

In Philadelphia, then, it will be the task of Sanders supporters like me — I am on his slate of potential pledged delegates in California’s 12th Congressional District in San Francisco — to make our case to the superdelegates, as well as the nation at large.


A year ago, who would have seriously believed that a democratic socialist, down 50 points in the polls ... could be winning primaries in May?

Sanders voters are often accused of thinking that just because our candidate says something should be done that it will be done once he’s elected, as if there were no real-world obstacles to a Medicare-for-all plan, a $15-an-hour national minimum wage, tuition-free public higher education or any of the other ideas we’re promoting. But we think nothing of the kind. We do however believe that if we elect a president who doesn’t say — or think — these things should happen, they never will happen.

In Philadelphia we will start with an electability argument. Poll after poll has shown Sanders faring better against Donald Trump than Clinton does, particularly among independent voters.

More importantly, we will argue that the Sanders approach represents the way forward for the party and the country. The central divide in the race among Democrats has been whether the political realities of Washington or the material needs of the nation and the world should prevail. The Clinton campaign contends that it is the former: If the congressional votes aren’t there for big changes, we have no choice but to pare back our program to smaller increments. Sanders supporters, on the other hand, argue that the need to address major problems such as income inequality and climate change means that the preferences and customs of the nation’s capital must yield to the demands of reality. We need a sea change, a paradigm shift. We need a political revolution.

These things do happen.

One such shift is within the memory of many voters — the Reagan Revolution, when members of Congress moved rightward in response to President Reagan’s landslide election in 1980. The result was the entrenched and glorified growth of economic inequality that Sanders is now trying to undo. Before that, there was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which established the principle that the capitalist system should be the servant of the people, not the reverse.


The difficulty of changing the minds of large numbers of superdelegates in Philadelphia can hardly be overstated. But consider this: A year ago, who would have seriously believed that a democratic socialist, down 50 points in the polls, could run a national presidential campaign decrying the dominance of government by billionaires, rejecting corporate cash and funding it with millions of donations averaging $27 — and still be winning primaries in May? Change does happen.

If the superdelegates want to know how to start bringing that change to Washington, they need only look in the mirror.

Tom Gallagher, a past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, has lived in San Francisco for 22 years. He is the author of “The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Take On the Military Industrial Complex.”