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After Bernie Sanders’s 22-point victory in New Hampshire in February, his supporters were understandably excited. The Vermont senator was on the road to the nomination, they hoped, racking up most of the state’s delegates.
But Sanders’s victory was perhaps less meaningful than it appeared.
Thanks to the Democratic Party’s superdelegate system, 712 elected officials and party bigwigs also get a vote at the party convention. That’s some 15 percent of all 4,763 delegates who ultimately pick the nominee, according to CBS News. Unlike pledged delegates, who are selected in the primary, these so-called superdelegates are allowed to back whichever candidate they want.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a party stalwart, has racked up an overwhelming number of endorsements from these superdelegates. A Washington Post story predicted she could ultimately win up to 90 percent of their votes.
Even though Sanders won overwhelmingly in New Hampshire, his supporters were baffled and angry to find out that his 15-9 delegate count could actually become 15-17 by convention time, after the state’s eight superdelegates are factored in.
Ever ready to needle the opposition party, the New Hampshire Republican Party leaped into the fray, launching an online petition Feb. 15 asking Democratic officials to honor the results of the primary.
"Given the results of the primary, the vote of one New Hampshire superdelegate is equal to the votes of about 10,000 grassroots activists," the petition reads, citing some of the big-name superdelegates. "This means that Governor Hassan, Senator Shaheen, the senator’s husband William Shaheen and Congresswoman Kuster are going to cancel out the votes of 40,000 Granite State Democrats."
Could one superdelegate vote actually be worth 10,000 ballots cast in the primary? We decided to check it out.
It’s important to note that the phrase "grassroots activists" in the statement is imprecise. The rest of the paragraph suggests that it’s being used as a synonym for Democratic voters, but it’s a stretch to call every voter an activist.
When we reached out to the state Republican party, spokesman Ryan Williams confirmed "grassroots activists" and "voters" were used interchangeably in this case.
And in a statement sent from New Hampshire Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn about the same time, she correctly used the term voters, and not activists.
The actual math involved is simple enough. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s office tallies the total number of votes cast on each side of the primary. On Feb. 9, 2016, his office recorded 254,776 votes on the Democratic side.
According to reporting from the Monitor, the state Democratic Party has 24 base delegates to award in the primary. Since he won 60 percent of the vote, Bernie Sanders was awarded 15 delegates, and Hillary Clinton was awarded 9. Simple enough.
Enter the superdelegates. There are eight in the state. As the GOP correctly noted, they include Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and her husband, Billy Shaheen; U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster; and Gov. Maggie Hassan. Six of those superdelegates backed Clinton before the primary (sitting out were state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark and party Chairman Ray Buckley). Even after the primary, Fuller Clark and Buckley wouldn’t say who they stood behind, but it’s tradition for the state’s superdelegates to endorse the same candidate.
According to a list from the party, the state’s two other superdelegates are Kathleen Sullivan and Joanne Dowdell.
So the equation goes like this: Divide the 24 base delegates into the 254,776 ballots cast. Given the total number of voters, each delegate was selected by 10,616 voters. Each Democratic superdelegate, therefore, has an equal weight to more than 10,000 voters.
But the superdelegates don’t live in a vacuum.
As Buckley told the Monitor, superdelegates are free to change their votes at any time. Since the role was originated in the 1980s, they have never overturned the national consensus for one candidate or another, according to Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Bernstein. There was concern in 2008, for example, that superdelegates supporting Clinton would tip the balance against then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. But as Obama racked up primary wins and amassed delegates, he picked up uncommitted and defecting superdelegates.
Sullivan, former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party , wrote a column for the Monitor in which she described how the state’s delegation voted in 2008: "At the convention, every superdelegate who had supported Hillary Clinton voted for Barack Obama. It is a New Hampshire tradition: The delegation supports the nominee unanimously."
In other words, while many party insiders support Clinton, if Sanders pulls out a come-from-behind win, it’s unlikely that superdelegates would be willing -- or able -- to block him.
The New Hampshire Republican Party said that "Given the results of the primary, the vote of one New Hampshire superdelegate is equal to the votes of about 10,000 grassroots activists."
For starters, "grassroots activists" are not the same as voters, which needed to be clarified. But strictly looking at the numerical breakdown of voters in the Democratic primary and the number of delegates, the math works out.
We rate the the claim Mostly True.
"What is a superdelegate?" CBS News, Feb. 25, 2016
"Superdelegates won’t save Hillary Clinton from Bernie Sanders," Washington Post, Feb. 18, 2016
Petition -- New Hampshire Republican State Committee, Feb. 15, 2016
"N.H. GOP wants superdelegates to back Sanders," Associated Press, Feb. 15, 2016.
Correspondence with New Hampshire Republican spokesman Ryan Williams, March 8-9, 2016
"Unpledged delegates by state," 2016 Democratic National Convention, Jan. 21, 2016
2016 Presidential Primary -- Ballots Cast and Names on Checklist, New Hampshire secretary of state’s office
"Despite primary loss, most New Hampshire superdelegates stand by Clinton," Concord Monitor, Feb. 10, 2016
"Clinton's Superdelegate Tipping Point," Bloomberg View, Aug. 28, 2015
"My Turn: The truth about New Hampshire superdelegates," Concord Monitor, Feb. 24, 2016
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