If you’ve only been paying slight attention to the presidential campaign this year, it might seem like the two parties’ primary contests are pretty similar. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have run shockingly successful insurgent campaigns that caught their parties’ establishment by surprise. Both have done so with very little traditional fundraising and with aggressive use of social media.
And yet, Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, while Bernie Sanders is presently getting the hook from the media and the Democratic Party establishment — even though Hillary Clinton has been losing primary after primary. How is it that she’s still considered a lock for the nomination?
The reason is that Bernie is right: The system is rigged. The Democratic primary system, that is.
For all the comparisons between the turbulent primaries in both parties, the two contests have been different in one important way. Republicans decided their nominee through a fair, open and transparent process in which the voters determined the outcome. The Democrats, on the other hand, had their nominee chosen in large part by the party oligarchy rather than by the voters.
While it’s true that millions of Americans voted in the Democratic primaries and caucuses this year, 20 percent of the delegates to the party’s nominating convention in Philadelphia will be so-called “Superdelegates” — party elites who get a vote at the convention by virtue of the fact that they are members of Congress, state party chairs, or other officials of the Democratic establishment.
Think about that: 20 percent of all the delegates is 40 percent of all the delegates required to win the nomination.
Hillary, the candidate of the Democratic establishment, has held an overwhelming lead in the fight for Superdelegates since the beginning. In fact, her campaign was bragging in August of 2015 — nearly six months before the first Democratic primary voters cast their ballots — that she’d already won. The reason was that her Superdelegate commitments made it virtually impossible for Bernie to win the nomination.
The Clinton campaign may have been arrogant, but it was also correct. The fix was in. Still today, Hillary has her Superdelegate friends in the Democratic establishment to thank for the vast majority of her lead in the primary. Superdelegates comprise 70 percent of her lead over Bernie Sanders — many of them officials from states Sanders carried overwhelmingly. If the Superdelegates were even split evenly between the two candidates, Sanders would be in the lead right now.
The Democratic establishment is tilting the playing field for Hillary Clinton in a huge way. And that is exactly the function the Superdelegate system was designed to perform. After the disastrous nominations of George McGovern in 1972 and (from the perspective of the Democratic establishment) Jimmy Carter in 1976, the party elites sought to gain more control over who would be nominated — intentionally taking power away from the voters. So that’s what we are seeing them do for Clinton right now.
The damage of this illegitimate, insider game to Bernie Sanders’ candidacy is incalculable. Incalculable, because it’s impossible to know how many people might have voted for Sanders if they hadn’t believed all along that his campaign was doomed to fail.
In our new documentary film about the life and legacy of George Washington, “The First American,” historian Victor Davis Hanson comments that the most important factor in insurgencies isn’t ideology; it’s momentum. Momentum is what the Superdelegate system conspired to deprive the Sanders insurgency of. Clinton won a number of her primary victories by a very narrow margin. In a media environment in which the Sanders campaign had the momentum of posing a mortal threat to Hillary’s chances, rather than being seen as a quirky but ultimately futile sideshow, there’s no telling how many more states he might have won.
Combined with the other tactics the Democratic establishment used to rig the race in Clinton’s favor — severely limiting the number of prime time debates, for instance — it’s a pretty pathetic way to win a primary. And it’s certainly not a very democratic one.