A voter wears buttons for Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Hillary Clinton buttons, March 31, 2016, in New York.
Photo by Mary Altaffer/AP

Bernie Sanders vs. the ‘magic number’

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign faced impossibly long odds going into this weekend’s Democratic caucuses, and the results only made matters worse. Hillary Clinton easily defeated the Vermont senator in both the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, moving her that much closer to wrapping up the party’s presidential nomination.
And with Clinton poised to pass the necessary delegate threshold tomorrow, Sanders has a new goal: persuading news organizations and the public to believe that the primary race isn’t over, even when it appears to be over. The Washington Post reported over the weekend:
Bernie Sanders urged news organizations on Saturday to hold off on declaring a victor in the Democratic presidential race following Tuesday’s primaries and vowed to soldier on to the party’s convention in July.
Sanders comments come as his rival, Hillary Clinton, is poised to effectively clinch the nomination following the close of the polls Tuesday in California, New Jersey, and four other states.
Let’s unwrap some of the arithmetic here to get a better sense of what Sanders and his team are arguing.
In the Democratic race, there are a total of 4,051 pledged delegates available, earned entirely through primaries and caucuses. You’ve probably seen references to the “magic number” of 2,026 – that’s the threshold to reach a majority of the pledged delegates. As of this morning, according to the Associated Press’ latest count, Clinton leads Sanders by this metric, 1,809 to 1,520, including the results from the weekend’s contests.
It’s not mathematically impossible for Sanders to catch up in the remaining primaries and caucuses – several hundred delegates will be awarded in contests over the next eight days – but given proportional delegate distribution, the senator would have to win each of the remaining contests by such enormous margins, even his campaign has conceded such a result is highly improbable.
But wait, Team Sanders says, 2,026 isn’t the real “magic number.”
There may be 4,051 pledged delegates available, but when super-delegates are added to the mix, there are actually a grand total of 4,765 delegates available. To officially win the nomination, a Democratic candidate actually has to win 2,383 delegates – a majority of the 4,765 total.
Sanders’ argument is that neither he nor Clinton will be able to reach the 2,383 figure until the Democratic convention – she’ll be able to wrap up a majority of pledged delegates tomorrow, the argument goes, but not a majority of all delegates until July. Therefore, the senator says, everyone should continue to pretend there’s some lingering uncertainty about the outcome.
Some of this argument is technically true, but it overlooks some relevant details that offer a more complete and accurate picture.
In order for Sanders’ case to work, he focuses his attention on the 714 super-delegates, made up of Democratic Party officials and insiders. Each of these 714 people will literally vote at the convention, not before, and the Vermont senator believes it’s possible that they will overrule the will of Democratic voters and make him the presidential nominee, even after he comes in second.
Putting aside the philosophical concerns surrounding such a plan – it’d be wildly undemocratic to rely on party elites to override the wishes of millions of actual voters – the fact remains that the super-delegates are people who can tell us how they’ll vote.
In fact, most of them already have. By a nearly 12-to-1 margin, most of the super-delegates have already stated their intentions publicly and they’ve said they’re going to back Clinton, voting in line with voters’ wishes.
In other words, Sanders has a very tough pitch to make. When Clinton earns a majority of pledged delegates, the Sanders campaign will say that doesn’t really count, because super-delegates may yet reject the people’s choice. When super-delegates are added to the mix based on their stated announcements of support, the Sanders campaign will say that doesn’t really count, either, since these insiders could decide to reject the people’s choice next month.
It’s a strategy many of Sanders’ supporters – and even some of his staff – aren’t comfortable with. The more likely scenario is that some of the senators’ congressional backers will wait until the primaries and caucuses are officially over, and then move their support to the candidate who earned the voters’ backing, making the senator’s task effectively impossible.