Friday 20 May 2016

Failure Is Not An Option

In the Democratic Party primary, the nomination has been essentially wrapped up by Hillary Clinton. She now has a healthy 57% of the popular vote in the primaries, and 54% of pledged delegates. Technically speaking, she could still lose to Bernie Sanders. This would require the party's unelected superdelegates, who make up 20% of the total, giving their collective support to Sanders.

Bernie Sanders. Source: Wikipedia

Some Sanders partisans still cling to hope of the nomination, as in this article by Seth Abramson. He starts by looking at the much closer contest in 2008:
Clinton conceded in 2008 for a number of reasons: her opponent, now-President Obama, agreed to retire her massive campaign debt; she believed (correctly) that Obama would name her either Vice President or Secretary of State, the latter the second-most powerful position in Washington; and finally and most importantly, Obama had kicked the hell out of her in the latter half of the election season, winning 16 of the final 25 states. [Emphasis mine]
Most importantly? Maybe, just maybe, the fact that Obama was narrowly ahead of Clinton in both popular vote and delegate count had something to do with it. Abramson is very, very careful to avoid mentioning this, since it undermines his argument for nominating Sanders.

To be fair, the concept of late momentum is a valid one. A well-known candidate such as Clinton may win early primaries on the strength of name recognition and money. A less famous one such as Obama in 2008 or Sanders in 2016 may gradually become more appealing, as voters learn more about him. This is one reason why the primaries are spread out over time.

The trouble is, arguing that Sanders has momentum requires a very selective view of the results. If we look at the last 12 states to vote, between 5 April (Wisconsin) and 17 May (Oregon, Kentucky), the score is Sanders 6, Clinton 6. The big prizes of New York and Pennsylvania went to Clinton by comfortable margins. By early April, two months had passed since Sanders' victory in the New Hampshire primary. So the electorate had had a reasonable amount of time to study him, but that was not enough to give him the lead.

If Sanders confounds expectations and opinion polls, and wins California in a blowout, maybe it will be time to revisit the momentum argument. But on current polling he is far behind in California, and I wouldn't bet the farm on a reversal.

Abramson is on firmer ground when he discusses the purpose of superdelegates:
Super-delegates exist for only one purpose: to overturn, if necessary, the popular-vote and delegate-count results. 
Super-delegates would be meaningless if their only purpose were to validate the primary and caucus results, which is why that consideration had absolutely nothing to do with their creation.

He goes on to observe Sanders is well ahead of Clinton in head-to-head polls against Trump, and argue Sanders should be offered the nomination for this reason.

It is true superdelegates do not exist simply to confirm the leader in the popular vote; but I think Abramson is missing a couple of things about their role.

First, it would be less obviously unfair for the superdelegates to step into a confused race with three or more strong candidates. Suppose, for the sake of argument, Vice President Biden had entered the race and done well. Imagine the primary vote was split 36-34-30 between Clinton/Biden/Sanders, instead of 57-43 Clinton/Sanders as it is now.

In this example, the superdelegates would have a pretty strong case for choosing Biden. He lacks Clinton's high negatives, and would be much better able to secure votes and endorsements from disaffected Republicans. In policy terms he is a middle-of-the-road Democrat, hard to paint as a Communist menace. Last but not least, overturning the choice of 36% of primary voters is very different from overturning 57%.

This brings me to the second point: The superdelegates, by design, are highly informed political insiders. They are supposed to exercise their professional judgment in choosing the best candidate. They are not bound to the latest opinion polls, any more than they are to the primary vote results.

The current race is not confused. It's not even particularly close. Clinton has a clear majority of votes and delegates, not just a plurality, and is all but certain to hold onto it. It is true that, for now, Sanders polls better than Clinton against Trump. But turnout in the general election is much higher than in the primaries, and Sanders is still relatively unknown to the general electorate.

In 2004 the Republicans were able to smear John Kerry, a decorated combat veteran, as soft on defence. In 2008 they tried to smear Obama, whose behaviour was moderate and pragmatic to a fault, as some sort of alien terrorist sympathiser. What would they do with a self-proclaimed socialist who spent his honeymoon in the USSR? What would Sanders' poll ratings look like after three or four months of that onslaught?

In this respect, Clinton is a known quantity. For a quarter of a century, the Republicans have tried to bring her down over everything from Whitewater to Benghazi. For the most part, those who can be swayed by negative campaigning against Clinton already have been. Against Sanders, the Republicans have not yet begun to fight.

The superdelegates have very good reason to hesitate, before they overturn the popular vote and install Sanders as the nominee. Maybe they are wrong, and Sanders would win by a landslide; but at this point we have no way of knowing, and it would be a sizeable gamble.

Nominating Clinton is a gamble of a different kind. She is undoubtedly tough and experienced; but she has high negatives, close ties to the corporate establishment, and mediocre campaigning skills at best.

This is not a good time to gamble. It would be bad enough if some relatively mainstream Republican like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio was the presumptive nominee. Against Trump, as the Apollo engineers used to say, failure is not an option.

I like Bernie Sanders. I think he has great ideas and would be a good President if he got the chance. But Clinton has the majority of primary votes, and there is a strong argument that she is the lower-risk choice. In the face of Trump, that is likely to be good enough for the superdelegates.

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