Political super powers

The North State’s sole superdelegate offers a peek inside the elections machine

Bob Mulholland, a superdelegate who lives in Chico, with Hillary Clinton at a Democratic Party event in Sacramento several years ago.

Bob Mulholland, a superdelegate who lives in Chico, with Hillary Clinton at a Democratic Party event in Sacramento several years ago.

Photo courtesy of Bob Mulholland

For the past several months, Bob Mulholland’s inbox has been filled with emails from Bernie Sanders supporters, imploring him to change his stated support for Hillary Clinton to their candidate when he casts his vote at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.

Mulholland, who lives in Chico, is a superdelegate, a title that has risen from obscure political jargon to casual American conversation in the past few months, its insertion into everyday lexicon aided by Internet memes featuring pictures of everyone from presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders to Kermit the Frog decrying superdelegates as a threat to direct democracy.

Superdelegates have long been part of the Democratic Party election process, unbeknownst to most casual voters until their role in the current presidential election became clear around February. That’s when number-crunching politicos began positing that Sanders’ presidential campaign couldn’t succeed without the support of these pseudo-mysterious power brokers, the majority of whom—even at that early date—had already acknowledged their support for Clinton.

The recent attention to superdelegates is well-deserved; mathematically speaking, barring Clinton running away with the remaining state contests, their votes ultimately will determine the Democratic candidate for president.

So, who are these delegates, and what makes them so super?

At the national convention, there will be a total of 4,765 delegates whose votes will determine who will face “presumptive” Republican nominee Donald Trump in November. The vast majority of these delegates—4,046 of them—are “pledged,” meaning they are obligated to cast their ballot based on the popular vote in the state they represent during primary or caucus contests. For example, in last week’s Indiana primary (May 3), Sanders won with 52.7 percent of the popular vote, earning the same percentage of that state’s Democratic delegates—44 to Clinton’s 38. Superdelegates—there are 719 of them, with 71 hailing from California—are “unpledged,” meaning they can cast their vote for whomever they choose.

Thus far, a substantial majority of superdelegates have publicly announced their support for Clinton. According to numbers reported by The Washington Post last week, 520 superdelegates support Clinton, 39 support Sanders and 160 have not publicly announced their choice.

Following the West Virginia primary held Tuesday (May 10), Clinton has thus far won 1,716 pledged delegates compared with 1,430 secured by Sanders, according to The Associated Press. A Democratic candidate needs 2,383 total delegates to clinch the party’s nomination. Sanders would need 66 percent (594) of the remaining 900 pledged delegates up for grabs in remaining state contests, plus half of the superdelegates (360) to secure the nomination.

Superdelegates are unique to the Democratic Party. The most comparable counterparts in the Republican camp are three members of each state’s Republican National Committee sent to their party’s convention in addition to those determined by popular vote (for a total of 2,472). Unlike the Democratic Party’s superdelegates, though, these Republicans are obligated to cast their ballot in line with their state’s popular vote.

The superdelegate system was adopted in 1982, after the landslide defeats of Democratic candidates George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1980. It was seen as a way to allow party leaders a system of checks and balances if an unelectable candidate was nominated by popular vote.

Some superdelegates are behind-the-scenes movers and shakers, like Mulholland, the only one in the state who lives north of Sacramento. A 19-year employee of the California Democratic Party before his retirement in 2009, Mulholland remains a member of the Democratic National Committee and was elected by that committee as a superdelegate in 2012. He is a vocal, longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton.

Other superdelegates are not obscure figures. “They are the democratic governors like Jerry Brown, the U.S. senators, like Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, the Democratic members of the House of Representatives and some members of the Democratic National Party, either elected or appointed,” Mulholland explained during a recent interview. “They are people who were in most cases elected to their positions, and people who have been in the party for a long time doing all the work, raising all the money and holding public office.”

In addition to all of the Democratic members of Congress and governors, superdelegates also include distinguished party members, such as former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

The increased focus on the superdelegates this election cycle has led to deeper scrutiny and some criticism, primarily from those who believe their unpledged status gives them too much power. Mulholland was quick to defend the system.

“Most of the criticism of superdelegates comes from people who are not Democrats, people who are excited about one candidate this year but don’t even vote in most elections,” he said. “I know there’s some people out there that think Nancy Pelosi, our minority leader of the House, or Sens. Boxer and Feinstein shouldn’t be delegates to our national convention. I tell those people, ‘Get in line and run for Senate.’”

Mulholland, who is known for not pulling punches, said some of the letter-writers flooding his and other superdelegates’ email inboxes lack political savvy and can be downright abusive when it comes to the idea of Clinton as the country’s first female president.

“The women [superdelegates] are the ones that get the verbally and sexually abusive emails, while the men tend to get these illogical arguments and statements … they come mainly from people who aren’t Democrats, rarely vote, and in November they can smoke it legally in California.”

Mulholland first met Bill Clinton in 1978 and has spent significant time “watching both of the Clintons work very hard for candidates and causes all over America.” He said that he doesn’t believe that many superdelegates will back Sanders. His reasoning is, ironically, the same reason that many voters are drawn to Sanders, and even Donald Trump—that he is viewed as an establishment outsider.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with both Clintons, but I’ve never even met Sanders,” he said.

Mulholland said that the Clintons have a good track record of campaigning for other party members, noting Bill spent time in Sacramento in 2012 and 2014 to stump for Congressmen John Garamendi, Jerry McNerney and others.

Sanders? Not so much.

“How can this guy who [through his devotees] harasses with all these emails, says bad things about us, and now, in the last month of the primary, he’s saying, ‘I’m the nicest guy, I want all the superdelegates to overturn the will of the voters and make me the candidate.’ It’s just not going to happen.”

However, not all Democrats are such staunch supporters of the superdelegate system, or as resolute in their backing of Clinton. Troy Jackson, the former state Senate majority leader in Maine and a superdelegate, recently told The Washington Post, “If Sen. Sanders is close or is actually leading by the time we get to the convention, I think he definitely has a case to make that, in at least the states that he won, those superdelegates should be backing his campaign.”

And state Rep. Diane Russell, another Democrat from Maine, recently introduced a rule she hopes will be supported by other party members that would require superdelegates to vote along with the popular vote. The rule change wouldn’t take effect until 2020.