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Survey: Clinton Maintains Massive Superdelegate Lead

Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, hugs Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, during a campaign rally in Chicago.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, hugs Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, during a campaign rally in Chicago.

In the battle for primary votes, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are locked in a tight battle.

But you wouldn't know it to look at the superdelegates. In the unseen battle for these party insiders, Clinton has an overwhelming lead. Of the 712 Democratic superdelegates, 449 (or about 63 percent) currently support Clinton, according to the latest Associated Press survey of superdelegates. Only 19 support Sanders. (AP did not reach 62 superdelegates, and 182 remained uncommitted or undecided.)

Taking superdelegates out, Sanders has a 36-32 lead among delegates, based on the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. This superdelegate advantage is not only a huge lead for Clinton, but a big gain as well. Since the AP's November survey, her total has jumped 90 delegates. Sanders, meanwhile, has risen 11, from eight to 19.

Keep in mind that Clinton also had a big superdelegate lead the last time she ran, but went on to lose the nomination. As of January 2008 — shortly into the nominating process but still before Super Tuesday — she likewise maintained a huge lead, of 201 to Barack Obama's 89 and John Edwards' 40, according to the AP.

Then, in February 2008, Obama was starting to quickly pick up superdelegates, while Clinton had started to lose some to his side.

This time around, she is maintaining strong support among the party's "establishment" thus far, despite the fact that the race is tight in some primaries and caucuses.

Superdelegates consist of some well-known names — members of Congress and former presidents (Bill Clinton is one), for example — and many party insiders whom most Americans don't know — state party leaders and Democratic National Committee members, for example.

While the non-superdelegates are allocated based on how people vote in the various state caucuses and primaries, the superdelegates are "unbound," meaning they can choose whom they want. And thus far, they have overwhelmingly chosen Clinton.

This can make for delegate counts that don't quite seem to make sense considering vote totals. In New Hampshire, where Sanders won the primary by a 22-point margin, both he and Clinton have 15 total delegates. While he won 15 of the state's 24 non-superdelegates, she has six of the eight superdelegates in her corner.

Some Sanders supporters, upset about this system, have taken to contacting superdelegates, as the AP reports.

And one petition, declaring that "race for the Democratic Party nomination should be decided by who gets the most votes, and not who has the most support from party insiders," asks superdelegates to "pledge to back the will of the voters." Currently, that petition has more than 161,000 signatures.

The fact that the superdelegate system gives the party outsize influence clearly upsets many Sanders supporters, but giving the party outsize influence is the point of the system.

Superdelegates were created in 1982 to "improve the party's mainstream appeal" by giving party insiders more influence and reduce that of "activists," as Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann and AEI's Norman Ornstein wrote in 2008, when Clinton and Obama were also battling it out for superdelegates.

Ornstein and Mann laid out several arguments for the superdelegate system: It's a sort of "peer review" to choose the most electable candidate, they wrote, and promotes a sense of unity, making "stronger ties between the party and its elected officials."

Of course, in a tight race, that "unity" argument is probably hard to see from a voter's perspective. And that's not lost on superdelegates. One — then-Sen. John Kerry — told the New York Times in 2008 that he feared the repercussions of choosing a nominee that went against the will of the voters.

"My personal opinion is it would be a mistake and disastrous either way for the superdelegates — insiders, establishment politicians — to come along and overturn the expressed view of those pledged delegates," he said.

Indeed, many superdelegates have to be re-elected themselves at some point, Ornstein and Mann point out. Going too sharply against voters' wishes isn't going to do them any good in that sense.

But then, superdelegates remain unbound, even if they've chosen a candidate already. Should the race swing heavily in Sanders' favor, some superdelegates who are currently backing Clinton could always switch their support.

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Corrected: February 17, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this post said Clinton had 63 percent of superdelegates in one instance, but later on said 68. The correct number is 63.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.