Superdelegates may block Bernie

Could Bernie Sanders beat Donald Trump?

That’s the Big Question facing Democrats across the nation these days, after the U.S. senator from Vermont came very close to winning the Iowa caucuses and then captured victories in the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada caucuses. 

His Nevada win last week was commanding and startling, and the upshot is a nervous debate within the Democratic Party about Sanders’ viability if he goes on to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.

Supporters of Sanders — and he can boast the most excited and committed supporters of any Democratic candidate in the race — say the Vermonter can beat Trump. They point to recent polls that give evidence for their confidence.

For one, a recent major media poll of Democrats found Sanders leading the other candidates by double digits among both men and women. 

For another, he and former Vice President Joe Biden appear tied on how they would perform in a head-to-head general election contest against Trump. February polls on that issue averaged out to Sanders beating Trump by 4.4 percent points among all Americans, and Biden beating Trump by 4.3 percent.

(Among other candidates, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg bests Trump by 3.3 percent, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren each win by 1.8 percent, and Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar wins by 1.7 percent.)

How about Sanders’ democratic socialist orientation? 

Well, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that half of all Americans don’t care one way or the other about Sanders’ self-professed democratic socialism.

And Sanders has crafted a growing coalition of enthusiastic young voters, people of color and progressives of all types.

If the Vermont senator should grab a victory in this Saturday’s South Carolina primary, where Biden’s support among black Democrats has been shrinking and Sanders’ has been expanding, it may be difficult for Biden to bounce back on Super Tuesday next week, when about a third of the Democratic national delegates will be selected.

But longtime Democratic political leaders are unsure about whether Sanders could actually pull off a victory over Trump.

The Vermonter’s commitment to democratic socialism isn’t shared by a large swath of Americans. The Post-ABC poll discovered that 37 percent of political independents say Sanders’ espousal of that philosophy makes it more likely they would oppose him.

What’s more, some Gallup polls found Americans are more willing to vote for an atheist or a Muslim than for a socialist. 

And journalists covering the White House for national media report that the Trump campaign wants to run against Sanders. Russia, which favors Trump’s re-election, has launched a pro-Sanders social media campaign in the U.S.

Democratic political veterans also point to the fact that Democrat Hillary Clinton amassed nearly three million more popular votes than Trump in 2016, yet lost in the Electoral College vote. Some observers say a Democrat would need to beat Trump by at least 4 percent points in the popular vote to capture the Electoral College vote as well.

That’s because much of Clinton’s popular vote margin occurred through overwhelming wins in large populated states like California and New York, in effect going to waste because a high margin wasn’t needed there. 

On the other hand, had some 70,000 votes gone for Clinton instead of Trump in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Clinton would have won the Electoral College and the presidency.

Whether democratic socialism would sell in those states and others in the Midwest and South among the voting public this November is unknown. My guess is that right now it would not, but if Bernie’s base continues to grow, and he becomes the Democratic nominee at the party’s convention this summer, democratic socialism may in turn grow less toxic in the public’s mind by November.

That’s what Democratic leaders and party members have to decide. And that’s where “superdelegates” at the Democratic National Convention could prove a key factor.

The convention will certify 4,750 national delegates, 3,979 of them pledged to one candidate or another and 771 automatic delegates, who are defined as superdelegates. 

Superdelegates are generally influential longtime Democratic party leaders. They do not have to be pledged to a candidate going into the convention.

Superdelegates do not cast a vote on the first ballot at the convention. Therefore it will take 1,990 delegates (more than 50 percent) for a candidate to win on the first ballot.

If no one wins on the first ballot, then superdelegates can vote on the second and subsequent ballots. Consequently, the number of delegates to constitute a majority rises to 2,376. 

That could be the nightmare scenario for Democrats. Seasoned party leaders are wary of nominating Sanders as their standard-bearer because they don’t want their party labeled “socialist” by Republican campaigns, and because they fear that Sanders at the head of the ticket might hurt other Democratic candidates down farther on the ballot.

So superdelegates could end up denying Sanders the nomination. If that happens, polls show a significant number of Sanders supporters vowing to sit out the 2020 election, thereby handing re-election to Donald Trump.

Bottom line: Democratic moderates, especially in party leadership, fear that Sanders could cost the party the election whether Sanders is the nominee or not.

It’s a long way to the summer national convention and the November general election. But two-thirds of the Democratic delegates will be chosen by the end of March. Tempus is fugiting.

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