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Clinton Has 45-To-1 'Superdelegate' Advantage Over Sanders

Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, one of the early states she is vying for. She's neck and neck in polls there with Bernie Sanders of Vermont but leads in a big way nationally in endorsements.
Jim Cole
Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, one of the early states she is vying for. She's neck and neck in polls there with Bernie Sanders of Vermont but leads in a big way nationally in endorsements.

"Front-runner" can be a tenuous word. But when it comes to at least one group, Hillary Clinton is far and away the leader — the Democratic Party establishment.

There's no better measure of that establishment than unpledged party leaders and elected official delegates, better known as "superdelegates."

Among this group, Clinton leads Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 359 to 8, according to an AP survey of the group that will help elect the nominee at the Democratic National Convention in July. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has two people supporting him from this group.

AP was able to reach 80 percent of the 712 superdelegates; 210 delegates remain undecided.

It's true that Clinton also led in the superdelegate race in the 2008 presidential cycle and eventually lost to Barack Obama. But Clinton's support is far greater than what it was around this time in 2007.

Back then, AP found that 169 superdelegates were for Clinton; Obama had 63 of the 90 percent they contacted in December 2007. That's a nearly 3-to-1 advantage. Her lead this year is 45 to 1.

Why it matters? The 712 superdelegates, though, are still only less than a third of the 2,382 total delegates needed to win the nomination. The rest will be determined, in part, by actual results in the primaries and caucuses. And superdelegates are not technically bound to vote for anyone (although, while there were some switchers in 2008, it's rare).

But these numbers mean Clinton has already gotten 15 percent of the delegates needed — two months before any voting has begun. In other words, Clinton starts with a 15 percentage point head start over Sanders.

What's more, superdelegates have a greater importance than raw numbers. That's because the way they lean, political scientists have found, is one of the best predictors of who will become the nominee.

"What's highly correlated with who becomes the nominee is the number of party elite endorsements a candidate has in the year before the election," UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck told NPR's Sam Sanders in a story last month. "The idea is not that anybody hears that someone has endorsed you and then that sways their vote. The idea is that party elites have a sense of who is viable and electable as a candidate. They have unique insider knowledge about this."

It's remarkable that this many would come forward — on the record — this early. In most cycles, many of the leaders wait until results in their states.

What accounts for this? The Clintons have a deep history with Democratic Party politics — Bill, of course, being a former president.

Sanders, on the other hand, has never been a registered Democrat and does not have the kind of party roots that the Clintons have. That has made it very difficult for Sanders to break through with the party elite.

Sanders would argue that the elites and the "status quo" are what's wrong with Washington.

It's their party — and they'll pick the nominee they want. But Sanders hopes to overcome the elite with grass-roots energy.

These numbers show just how much of a hole he starts in.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.