Vermont’s native son Bernie Sanders keeps picking up support nationwide in his bid to win the Democratic presidential nomination. But his few allies on Capitol Hill fear the party establishment will try to block him at the convention.
Democratic voters have only come out in two states so far. While Hillary Clinton eked out a win in Iowa, Bernie Sanders smashed her by more than 20 points in New Hampshire. But delegates matter, and so far Clinton has close to 400 delegates compared to a mere 45 for Sanders.
That’s because Clinton has the backing of more superdelegates – they’re party leaders who are free to support anyone they want. Minnesota Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison is a Sanders supporter. He fears superdelegates could coronate Clinton at the convention.
“It would be a bad metric for the party to say, look, come in here millennials, but even though you were the majority you’re not going to win,” Ellison says. “That’s not going to be a good message for our party.”
There are more than 700 superdelegates, including Vermont's congressional delegation and former elected officials such as Vermont’s Howard Dean, who is now a lobbyist and Clinton supporter. The former Secretary of State has locked up more than 90 endorsements in the U.S. House, more than 30 in the Senate and 12 nods from current governors.
Sanders, meanwhile, has only solidified three endorsements from sitting members of Congress, including one from Rep. Peter Welch, who announced his support for his fellow congressional delegate on Vermont Edition Friday. Ellison says it’s time for the party to change their rules.
“It’s a systematic thing, and we need to look at whether or not the Democratic Party is as democratic as we can be in terms of the rules,” he says.
While Sanders’ supporters are afraid of the superdelegate count, campaign analysts see it differently.
Geoffrey Skelley monitors elections for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“A lot of people were ringing their hands in 2008 about ‘Hillary Clinton getting off to good start on superdelegates, maybe they could prevent Obama from getting the nomination,’” Skelley says. “Well, that did not happen.”
Alex Theodoridis, a political science professor at the University of California, says superdelegates came into play after the 1968 contest when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Theodoridis says they’re basically there to help the party unify in the face of extreme situations.
“[Say] the person receiving the delegates were assassinated or died in a plane crash, or something, or were the subject of a major scandal before the convention, then you would have some leadership there to sort of oversee things,” Theodoridis says.
Virginia Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly is firmly behind Hillary Clinton. He’s predicting superdelegates won’t play a role, because Clinton will overtake Sanders soon.
“She needs to find a better spark for her candidacy that enthuses our base. I think she’s quite capable of doing that,” Connoly says. “And the aspirational aspects of the Sanders campaign, however alluring, aren’t really a plan of action and aren’t a blueprint to win the White House.”
But Sanders is closing the gap in upcoming contests in Nevada and South Carolina, which Arizona Congressman and Sanders supporter Raul Grijalva says could change the calculus from the party establishment.
“Once that’s done, then I hope people start giving him a second look – superdelegates, even the ones that are committed, start giving him a second look,” Grijalva says. “Because if we can get a second look and at least get some people to affirm their neutrality, or those that are neutral to continue to be neutral or to side with Bernie, obviously, that would be great.”
Sanders himself seems less concerned about the superdelegate race. He’s focused on continuing to win contests to solidify a solid block of normal delegates to make the choice at the convention easy.
Matt Laslo is a reporter based in Washington, D.C. He has been covering Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court since 2006.
VPR's coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.