Published March 21, 2018
Supporters of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid have long blamed the Democratic Party’s superdelegate system for his defeat. It’s no surprise, therefore, that they are pushing to reform that system, reducing or perhaps even eliminating slots for unelected and unpledged delegates. Recent reports suggest that they may succeed in doing so, but that their efforts will not help Sanders win the party’s nomination in 2020. Instead, they will make it likelier that another progressive will triumph: California Senator Kamala Harris.
Harris, not Sanders, will be the probable beneficiary of the rules change because of the demographic makeup of the Democratic primary electorate. It would not be an oversimplification to say that the Democrats divide into three rough groups: progressives, centrists, and non-whites. African-Americans are by far the largest share of the last group, totaling nearly a quarter of all Democratic voters nationwide.
Democratic Party nomination fights have followed a similar pattern since at least 1984. A candidate appealing to educated, more liberal Democrats challenges a relatively more centrist rival favored by the party establishment; the progressive wins most primaries and caucuses in New England, the West, and Wisconsin, while the centrist wins most of the remaining states. This outcome has historically doomed the progressive, from 1984 challenger Senator Gary Hart to Sanders himself, because there are more centrists than progressives or liberals.
The non-white vote, and especially the African-American vote, plays an underappreciated role in this process. Non-whites almost invariably back the more centrist candidate, providing that person with key support to defeat his or her more liberal challenger. Africans-Americans and Latinos backed Walter Mondale over Hart in 1984 and Bill Clinton over Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown in 1992, delivering the nomination to both men in the process. They did so again in 2016, backing Hillary Clinton by margins as large as 80 percent, allowing her to win most Southern and Midwestern primary states as a result.
African-American voters do break from this mold, however, when a serious African-American candidate is running. Jesse Jackson won two states dominated by African-American Democrats in 1984 and swept six Southern states in 1988. Crucially, Barack Obama owed his nomination in 2008 to African-American voters, riding their overwhelming support to win seven Southern states and many delegates in Midwestern and Northeastern states with large, urban black populations. If not for their support, Obama would have merely been yet another failed progressive challenger.
Indeed, except for the African-American community, support for Obama in 2008 and Sanders in 2016 is strikingly similar. According to 2016 exit polls, Sanders ran best among self-described “very liberal” voters, beating Clinton among them in virtually every state. Similarly, 2008 exit polls showed Obama beating Clinton among those voters in all but four states. Obama and Sanders also swept party caucuses, each winning the same states in these progressive-dominated contests. Sanders and Obama also both won the more progressive-minded primary states of Oregon, Montana, and Wisconsin. Had Sanders attained Obama’s support among African-Americans, then he, not Hillary Clinton, would have been the 2016 nominee, regardless of superdelegate support.
This is where Senator Harris can do what Sanders could not. As a dynamic, African-American woman, she could follow in Jackson’s and Obama’s footsteps and win African-American votes. If she can combine them with the Obama-Sanders progressive wing of the party, she will easily repeat Obama’s 2008 feat and gain the nomination.
Her potential rise is aided by the increasing strength of progressives and African-Americans within Democratic Party contests. According to primary exit polls, the share of very liberal voters increased in every state between 2008 and 2016. Very liberal voters were less than one-fifth of the Democratic electorate in 2008 but constituted between 25 percent and 30 percent in 2016. The share of African-Americans within the electorate also rose in 17 of the 21 states with exit polls in both years.
Harris would also benefit from the dramatic decline of moderate and conservative Democratic primary voters. As recently as 2008, such voters were a majority in virtually every primary state. White moderates and conservatives provided the political support for centrist candidates, giving Hillary Clinton their backing in 2008 and 2016. But in 2016, moderates were outnumbered by liberals in all but two states, Tennessee and West Virginia. The share of Democrats who called themselves “just” liberal rose in tandem with the increase in very liberal voters. A candidate who can rally the Democratic left wing therefore stands in a stronger position than at any time in party history.
Harris’s home state also makes her the likeliest beneficiary of these trends. California is not only the largest state; it is also the most Democratic large state. It will send close to 500 delegates to the 2020 convention, nearly 20 percent of the total needed to nominate a candidate, and over 200 more than the second-largest state. Harris won’t win all of California’s delegates—the party’s system of awarding delegates proportionately to the votes received ensures that—but her potential strength among progressives and non-whites, combined with her progressive bona fides, could ensure that she wins as many as 300 Golden State delegates. No prospective challenger, outside of New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand or Andrew Cuomo, comes from a state anywhere near large enough to provide a comparable home-state boost.
One can guess that the prospect of nominating a progressive, female, African-American from California gives some party leaders the shivers. If you believe, as many Democrats do, that Donald Trump won the presidency because of racism and sexism, then the party could hardly trigger such instincts more than by nominating a female African-American. If you believe, as I do, that Trump won because of fears about the progressive Left’s agenda, then nominating a progressive’s progressive like Harris should also make you think twice. Even considering all of Trump’s negatives, leading Democratic insiders might think that their best nominee should have more in common with the Midwestern suburbanites and blue-collar voters who will elect the next president.
Under current rules, the Democratic superdelegates could swing behind a theoretically more electable candidate if, as has happened in the last two contests, no one emerges from the primary season with a nominating majority of delegates. But with the number of superdelegates curtailed or eliminated, that is unlikely to happen.
Sanders backers are surely sincere in their conviction that superdelegates cost their man the nomination. But in their rush to make the path straight for his return, they are clearing the path for a progressive with more cross-racial appeal, like Harris, to push him aside. Much to their horror, that result could make Donald Trump’s chances for a second term a whole lot better.