SPRINGFIELD, Nebraska — There’s something deeply undemocratic about the Democratic Party’s heavy reliance on superdelegates in selecting its presidential nominee, as far as those backing Sen. Bernie Sanders are concerned.
“They should eliminate the superdelegates,” said Mark Orsag of Gretna, Nebraska, shortly after voting for Mr. Sanders at the Sarpy County Democratic caucus. “I think they’re an anachronism, and I don’t think they should keep them around.”
What steams Sanders supporters is that the Democratic Party superdelegates — party insiders who receive a vote at the party convention and are not bound to back any candidate, like the elected “pledged” delegates — are lining up overwhelmingly behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
She holds a not-insurmountable lead over the Vermont senator after Super Saturday by 663 to 459 delegates, but when it comes to superdelegates, it’s not even close. Mrs. Clinton has the backing of nearly every superdelegate with 458, while Mr. Sanders has just 22, according to Associated Press estimates.
The candidates need 2,383 delegate votes to win the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
In other words, there’s a scenario in which Mrs. Clinton could lose the popular delegate vote but win the nomination by amassing enough superdelegates.
That strikes Democrats like Dana Donovan of La Vista, Nebraska, as the kind of pro-establishment, rigged system she’s voting against by rallying behind Mr. Sanders.
“I do not think that superdelegates should be a huge part of the democratic process. We’re voting as a people, not as superdelegates,” said Ms. Donovan. “I would equate superdelegates with the big corporations that are too heavy-handed in our political process.”
For all the criticism this year of the GOP establishment, Republicans are far more egalitarian when it comes to doling out convention votes. Each state, as well as the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories, has three GOP “unbound” voters — the Republican National Committee state chairman and chairwoman, and the state party chair — for a total of 168.
Recent changes to the RNC rules require the free-agent delegates to back the candidate nominated by their state. Democrats, meanwhile, have 712 superdelegates who can essentially vote for whomever they choose.
Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, not exactly a Democratic Party outsider, took a swing last week at the superdelegate system.
“I’m not a believer in the sway of superdelegates deciding who is going to be the nominee,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters. “I think we have a democratic process where people vote on both sides of the aisle and that that should determine who the nominee is.”
She added, “If somebody has the majority of the delegates from the votes of the people, I think that you change that to your peril. Whatever party you are.”
Democrats began larding their superdelegate totals “to put their finger on the scale” after the 1972 election, in which Sen. George McGovern lost in a landslide, and 1976, when outsider Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter won the nomination and ultimately the election, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver.
Analysts point out that Mr. Sanders can do something about his predicament — he can start wooing superdelegates — and that in the past, superdelegates have shown a tendency to move from one front-runner to another as the race progresses.
That happened in 2008, when superdelegates expected to back Mrs. Clinton ultimately swung for then-Sen. Barack Obama as he won more states and captured more delegates.
At the same time, those superdelegates, who often included Democratic elected officials, may feel less inclined to throw their support behind Mr. Sanders, a longtime independent who registered with the party just last year in order to run for the presidential nomination.
“Back to bad news for Sanders supporters: Clinton begins with a far larger superdelegate lead over Sanders than she ever had over Obama,” said Mr. Silver in a Feb. 12 column. “It’s easy to imagine why they might resist switching, furthermore. Unlike Obama, who was perhaps roughly as ‘electable’ as Clinton, Sanders is a 74-year-old self-described socialist.”
John Brown of Gretna, Nebraska, who voted for Mr. Sanders in Saturday’s caucus, said he trusts the superdelegates to do the right thing and follow the popular delegate vote, wherever it may lead.
“I believe that if Bernie Sanders starts to really rack up more pledged delegates and eventually gets close to or leads Hillary Clinton, many of them will defect over to Bernie Sanders to maintain unity with the Democratic Party,” Mr. Brown said.