Strictly speaking, Democratic primary and caucus voters are principally responsible for choosing their presidential nominee, but the power is not entirely in their hands. While those voters elect pledged delegates for the party's national convention, the Democratic process also includes superdelegates -- party officials who are able to cast their own votes, separate from primary and caucus results.
The system is not without critics. Though it's never happened, the existing Democratic process leaves open the possibility that actual, rank-and-file voters -- the folks who participate in state-by-state elections -- will rally behind one presidential candidate, only to have party officials override their decision, handing the nomination to someone else. For many, such a scenario seems un-democratic (and un-Democratic).
It therefore came as something of a surprise this week when Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign first raised the prospect of doing exactly that. Sanders aides told reporters
that he may not be able to catch Hillary Clinton through the primary/caucus delegate process, but the campaign might come close, at which point Team Bernie might ask superdelegates to give Sanders the nomination anyway, even if he's trailing Clinton after voters have had their say.
On the show last night, Rachel asked the senator himself
about the possibility. Initially, Sanders responded by talking about his optimism regarding upcoming contests and some national polling, but he didn't answer the question directly.
So, Rachel asked again whether he might try to convince superdelegates to side with him, even if he's behind in pledged delegates. Sanders said he and his campaign are "going to do the best we can in any and every way to win," but he still avoided comment on the specific approach he's prepared to take.
So, Rachel asked again. For those who missed it, this was the exchange that stood out.
MADDOW: I'm just going to push you and ask you one more time. I'll actually ask you from the other direction. If one of you -- presumably, there won't be a tie -- one of you presumably will be behind in pledged delegates heading into that convention. Should the person who is behind in pledged delegates concede to the person who is ahead in pledged delegates in Philadelphia? SANDERS: Well, I -- you know, I don't want to speculate about the future and I think there are other factors involved. I think it is probably the case that the candidate who has the most pledged delegates is going to be the candidate, but there are other factors.
It was arguably one of the more controversial things Sanders has said this year.
When the race for the Democratic nomination first got underway, many saw this same scenario, but in reverse: it seemed possible that Sanders would do well in primaries and caucuses, and Clinton would turn to powerful superdelegates to elevate her anyway.
That possibility, not surprisingly, enraged many of Sanders' backers. The Hill
published this report
in early February:
MoveOn.org Political Action and a group of backers of White House hopeful Bernie Sanders have launched petitions calling for superdelegates to support the candidate chosen by Democratic voters, not party insiders. Ilya Sheyman, the group's executive director, in a statement Thursday said voters "will not allow Democratic Party insiders to determine the outcome of this election." ... "The 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," Sheyman said.
Except, now Democrats face the prospect of seeing the entire scenario flipped on its head: Sanders and his team may ask those party insiders to help him, even if the results from primaries and caucuses favor Clinton.
For what it's worth, such a strategy seems unlikely to succeed. As things currently stand, Clinton's lead over Sanders among superdelegates is roughly 467 to 26. It's difficult to imagine the circumstances in which most of Clinton's official backers switch allegiance to Sanders, especially if Clinton leads the overall race once the primaries and caucuses are over.
But the fact that Sanders and his team are thinking along these lines is itself striking -- and the sort of strategy his progressive backers may find difficult to explain after months of making the exact opposite argument.