On the surface, the race for a presidential nomination seems relatively straightforward: candidates compete in a series of primaries and caucuses, hoping to earn pledged delegates to their party’s national convention. Get enough delegates and you’re the nominee.
But just below the surface, things get a little complicated. Especially for candidates who are likely to come up short, there are often spirited attempts to suggest the only metric that matters isn’t the only metric that matters. In recent months, for example, Bernie Sanders’ campaign has put forward a variety of arguments intended to shift the focus away from the fight for pledged delegates: maybe blue-state contests matter more; perhaps Southern victories “distort reality”; maybe successes in closed primaries are less impressive, and so on.
Yesterday, Sanders’ top campaign strategist, Tad Devine, came up with a brand new one. The Huffington Post reported:
“Let’s suppose that in the next six weeks, Bernie Sanders goes on a tear like he has gone on before. And let’s suppose in the 10 states and the four other contests that are out there, he wins the vast majority of them – he wins California by a huge margin, he racks up an impressive set of victories,” said Devine. “Should we then say the only benchmark is who has got more pledged delegates? Shouldn’t those superdelegates take into consideration a totality of the circumstances?”Asked if he believed that later contests were more important than earlier ones, Devine didn’t flinch. “I think they are,” he said,
I’ve seen some Sanders critics already suggest, in response to Devine’s comments, the idea of later victories mattering more than early victories is absurd. And while I can appreciate the point, history offers an interesting counter-example.
In 1980, Ted Kennedy challenged then-President Jimmy Carter in a Democratic primary. As the process was just getting under way, the Iran hostage crisis broke, and Carter’s public support initially surged. The incumbent cruised to easy victories in nearly all of the early primaries and caucuses, most by wide margins.
But as the nominating fight continued, and developments in Iran dragged on, public support for Carter’s handling of the crisis deteriorated. By the time the June primaries came along, Kennedy was in a vastly stronger position, and as the nominating process wrapped up, he closed out the calendar with several key wins, including a big victory in California.
As the convention drew closer, Kennedy went to party officials with a compelling message rooted in fact: Democratic voters who backed Carter in January and February couldn’t have known what global conditions would be like in June or July. As the then-president’s standing continued to worsen, Kennedy insisted that the later primaries should have more weight than the earlier primaries because the political circumstances had changed so dramatically. If Democrats had it to do over again, the senator argued, knowing what the crisis in Iran would do to the president’s national support, the results would have been much different.
And while Kennedy was probably correct, his pitch didn’t work. Party officials stuck to the rules: Carter had earned a clear majority of the delegates, and so he would be the Democratic nominee.
The problem for Team Sanders is that 2016 bears little resemblance to 1980. Nothing particularly important has happened to Hillary Clinton that fundamentally alters the significance of early successes. If she’d won a bunch of races in February and March, only to get caught shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die in April, then one could credibly make the case that those earlier victories should be seen in a different light now.
But that hasn’t happened. The race hasn’t changed in any fundamental way. Indeed, it’s not as if the Democratic electorate has suddenly turned against the frontrunner: Clinton has won five of the last six races, giving her a significant overall advantage.
At its root, Devine’s argument yesterday wasn’t just that later victories matter more than earlier wins – a dubious proposition given the circumstances – but also that Sanders victories should matter more now that Clinton has shifted her focus to the general election.
In other words, as far as the Sanders campaign is concerned, now that Clinton has stopped trying to win primaries and caucuses, Sanders’ potential victories in primaries and caucuses should spur superdelegates to elevate him, even if he comes in second in the race for pledged delegates. It’s a tough sell.