In explaining the Electoral College to non-Americans (and occasionally Americans), I like to use the “points” approach. Every state is worth a certain number of points, and a candidate needs to win a majority to win it all. And yeah, it really doesn’t matter what the overall population thinks. Points. It’s all about points. Bernie Sanders is starting to figure this out in his efforts to become the Democratic nominee.
Of course the system is actually a bit different for primaries. Democratic delegates are distributed proportionally based on candidate performance and minimum thresholds, so the popular vote is much more indicative of delegate numbers than on the Republican side, where some states are winner-take-all. This is why Donald Trump can boast almost 50 percent of delegates despite far less than 50 percent of the popular vote. Sanders has gotten 43 percent of the popular vote and just about 45 percent of pledged delegates.
That word “pledged” is crucial. The Democratic Party has 714 “superdelegates,” consisting of Democratic members of Congress, governors and other party elites. These delegates make up more than 15 percent of the total slate and can support any candidate at the convention. It’s a pretty convenient way to make sure the party can maintain a hold on its choice of nominee. It’s questionably undemocratic, but that’s beside the point.
As you could imagine, party-favorite Hillary Clinton is doing well amongst this cohort of delegates. Just among the Senate, she has 40 votes compared to Sanders’ one. Oh, and Sanders’ vote is himself. It’s like being the guy that wants Boston Burger Company when the whole group chat wants Chipotle. Even Vermont’s governor is a Clinton superdelegate. Sanders took 86 percent of the state, yet the governor, house representative and one senator are supporting Clinton.
So not only does Sanders have to start making up a big delegate deficit from elections, he needs to find a way to overcome the 400-superdelegate lead Clinton has built. That’s the equivalent of every delegate in New York, plus every delegate in Massachusetts. This is why winning in Wisconsin doesn’t really change anything for me. Sanders shrunk the delegate gap by about 15. Sure, superdelegates could switch sides if Sanders starts to dominate the popular vote, but that is looking exceedingly unlikely.
I don’t want to trivialize what Bernie Sanders has done. He’s brought important issues to the forefront of the Democratic Party and has run a pretty clean campaign. His debates with Clinton have been fun to watch. But the structure of the party and its primary process makes an already-unlikely win even more unlikely.
So yes, Bernie fans should enjoy the win in Wisconsin. And the probable win in Wyoming this weekend. It’s important, however, to keep things in perspective. There are still a lot of delegates left out there, but Sanders will struggle in upcoming primaries like New York and Connecticut. These should cue a return in form for the Clinton campaign.