Superdelegates "willing to risk intraparty damage“ to block Sanders at contested convention: report

Nearly 90% of superdelegates would block Bernie Sanders if he does not win a majority of delegates outright

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published February 27, 2020 3:14PM (EST)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders I-Vt., speaks at a campaign event in Tacoma, Wash., Monday, Feb. 17, 2020.  (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders I-Vt., speaks at a campaign event in Tacoma, Wash., Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Nearly 90% of superdelegates interviewed by The New York Times said they are willing to block Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at the convention if he fails to win a majority of delegates, even if such a move risks fracturing the Democratic Party.

Only nine of the 93 superdelegates — who are Democratic lawmakers and other party officials — who spoke to The Times said that Sanders should become the nominee if he wins the most votes yet fails to clinch a majority before the Democratic National Convention. Many said they were "willing to risk intraparty damage to stop his nomination," according to the report.

"We're way, way, way past the day where party leaders can determine an outcome here, but I think there's a vibrant conversation about whether there is anything that can be done," Rep. Jim Hines, D-Ct., told The Times.

Hines is one of 771 superdelegates, who are barred from voting on the first ballot under new Democratic National Committee rules but would be able to vote on a potential second ballot if no candidate clinches a majority of pledged delegates.

According to election forecaster FiveThirtyEight, there is a 50% chance no candidate wins a majority of delegates but a 31% chance that Sanders wins at least half of the pledged delegates.

If Sanders or another candidate fails to win the nomination on the first ballot, it would trigger a second ballot at a Democratic convention for the first time since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson won the nomination and went on to lose in more than 40 states to former President Dwight Eisenhower. Democrat George McGovern emerged from the 1972 contested convention as the nominee but went on to lose 49 states former President Richard Nixon. Former President Jimmy Carter also faced an intraparty insurgency in 1980. Though he was able to hold on to the nomination, he went on to lose 47 states to former President Ronald Reagan. The vast majority of candidates who won contested conventions went on to lose in the general election, according to Pew Research.

But superdelegates interviewed by The Times did not express concern about nominating a candidate they think would defeat Trump over the popular vote leader, even though polls suggest Sanders could be the most electable candidate in the field.

"Bernie wants to redefine the rules and just say he just needs a plurality. I don't think we buy that. I don't think the mainstream of the Democratic Party buys that. If he doesn't have a majority, it stands to reason that he may not become the nominee," New York State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs said.

Such a plan would implicitly result in a candidate who won fewer delegates or none at all to become the nominee.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, added that she would not support Sanders even if he enters the convention with 40 percent of the pledged delegates.

"If 60 percent is not with Bernie Sanders, I think that says something, I really do," she said.

Some Democratic donors have spoken to lawmakers about forming a super PAC aimed at blocking Sanders, according to the report. Others have floated nominating someone like Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who opted not to run, or even former first lady Michelle Obama, who made it clear she has no interest in running for president. Some also floated Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who was forced to drop out of the race after failing to gain any traction, or even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"If you could get to a convention and pick Sherrod Brown, that would be wonderful, but that's more like a novel," Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., told The Times.

Other Democrats expressed hope that Barack Obama would intervene, though people close to the former president said he has no intention of doing so. Obama also believes "that the Democratic Party shouldn't engage in smoke-filled-room politics, arguing that those kinds of deals would have prevented him from capturing the nomination when he ran against Hillary Clinton in 2008," The Times reported.

Democratic National Committee officials insisted to The Times that it was unlikely there would not be an "assured nominee" by the convention. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who is also a superdelegate, said he does not believe Democratic leaders would risk turning the convention into an ugly floor fight.

"I've had 60 years experience with Democratic delegates. I don't think they will do anything like that," he said. "They will each do what they want to do, and somehow they will work it out. God knows how."

Every candidate except Sanders said the convention should "work its will" if the popular vote leader does not have a majority of delegates earlier this month.

"The will of the people should prevail," Sanders said. "The person who has the most votes should become the nominee."

The comments were a reversal from his position in 2016, when Sanders called for superdelegates in states that he won to back him over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who won the majority of pledged delegates. The DNC barred superdelegates from voting on the first ballot after Sanders' complaints.

"Bernie had a big hand in writing these rules," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said during a CNN town hall Wednesday. "I don't see how he thinks he gets to change them now that he thinks there's an advantage for him."

But Sanders' supporters argue that the superdelegate effort could fracture the party.

"If Bernie gets a plurality, and nobody else is even close and the superdelegates weigh in and say, 'We know better than the voters,' I think that will be a big problem," Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told The Times.

Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said such an intraparty fight could hand President Donald Trump the election.

"We shouldn't be second-guessing voters," she said. "If that's what our party leaders are going to do, you'll see rebellion not just in the presidential race but in down-ballot races, as well."

Even those concerned that Sanders could have difficulty defeating Trump warned that a convention fight would inevitably give Trump a huge advantage.

"Even if you think Sanders is an extremely risky general election candidate -- which I do -- this is insane," New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg said, "and will lead Democrats to defeat."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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