When a Democratic candidate hits the magic number of pledged delegates plus superdelegates, are they the nominee? History says yes, and says it unambiguously, even if the losers often disagree.
Here’s how it has gone since the superdelegates were added to the process.
Mondale / Hart / Jackson (1984)
In 1984, the first year that superdelegates were being used, they made a good deal of difference to Mondale. The multiple candidates that early in that season (including Jesse Jackson) gave Mondale a solid lead, but also fractured the vote such that he could not win it with pledged delegates alone.
The Mondale campaign understood this, and not wanting the superdelegates to come in at the last second with a unexpected boost, they began the tradition of immediately reporting superdelegates that were converted to the press’s delegate trackers. When a delegate committed, the Mondale campaign would call news agencies and give them the name of the delegate, then the agencies would call the delegate to confirm and update their tracker. (Source)
Unfortunately Mondale reached the end of the primaries with a spate of losses to Gary Hart, including a loss in California in a close contest. While Mondale’s camp claimed the votes of the last night of primaries put him over the magic number of that year (1,967 delegates, of which 323 were superdelegates), some news outlets agreed and some didn’t. The losses in the later primaries had left him with a fragile one delegate majority in the UPI tracker, and the AP tracker saw him as down a few votes. (Source)
Mondale wanted to win decisively. So he hit the phones and called the remaining unpledged superdelegates. So he made 50 calls in the space of two hours, and secured 40 additional superdelegates.(Source)
The next day, with a 40 delegate lead under UPI and a one delegate lead under the AP tracker, Mondale was able to claim victory.
Hart believed the fact that he had won a number of later contests (including California) might sway some superdelegates to switch, and he tried to woo them. He believed if he could woo even a small number of superdelegates away, he could push the nomination to a second ballot, and maybe get some traction. He greeted reporters the next day with the phrase “Welcome to overtime.”
Hart believed that he could get the superdelegates to turn. He had won seven of the final eleven contests. He had won more total states than Mondale, and not just by a little: Hart had won 26 states to Mondale’s 19. Additionally Mondale’s popular vote lead was very slim, having captured 38% of the vote to Hart’s 36%.°. Hart was also polling ten percent better against Reagan than Mondale was. (Source)
But party leaders were not having it. Mondale had won the plurality of pledged delegates and the majority of pledged and supers. Here’s Tip O’Neill:
Before the convention Hart made a number of bold moves, including attempting to get Jesse Jackson to throw his delegates to him. In another effort, he worked with Jackson to try to get minority delegates to defect from Mondale. On the eve of the convention, if they could have gotten just 100 delegates to defect (supers and pledged combined) they could have denied Mondale a first ballot win.
Ultimately their efforts to win over superdelegates were crushed, setting the precedent that has been followed each year since — the superdelegates will not overturn a pledged delegate plurality. (Source)
Dukakis / Jackson (1988)
The magic number in 1988 was 2,081 delegates. Due to a number of wins by Gephardt, Gore, and Simon early in the campaign and the dominance of Jesse Jackson in the deep south, Dukakis’s superdelegate wooing operation was central to his campaign in order to make the number. The other candidates had dropped out, but Jackson was taking it to the convention, so the Dukakis campaign wanted the campaign to be sealed up after the California primaries.
The delegate wooing campaign, ironically, was led by a young Tad Devine (Sanders’ current campaign strategist):
Mr. Devine, 32 years old, is the director of delegate selection for the Dukakis campaign. His goal is insuring that Mr. Dukakis has at least 2,081 delegates on the morning of June 8, the day after the California and New Jersey primaries, when the long Democratic nominating process will be over. That would insure Mr. Dukakis the nomination on the convention’s first ballot, rule out the possibility of a brokered convention, and make the intense young Mr. Devine and his candidate two very happy men.
”I think the opportunities to put together a nominating majority by then are good,” said Mr. Devine. Indeed, he has begun to predict it with no small amount of confidence; the brinksmanship and the drama of the brokers have given way to the earnest, incremental progress of the delegate hunter. (Source)
Devine and Dukakis hit the target on cue, with the California primary.
In this case, the fact Dukakis was the nominee was undisputed by the press after the California primary. Jackson stayed in the race to garner as many superdelegates as he could, not to win, but to earn consideration as a vice presidential candidate.
Jackson, who said he had earned consideration as a vice presidential candidate, vowed he would continue his presidential campaign until the Democratic national convention opens in Atlanta on July 18. He said he would try to persuade the remaining uncommitted “at-large” and “superdelegates” to support him.
“We’re going to keep our campaign alive to July at the convention,” he said. “(Edward) Kennedy did it in 1980, (Gary) Hart did it in 1984, I will do it in 1988.” (Source)
Jackson managed to put together a respectable second-place showing, but would be rejected by Dukakis as a vice president (Dukakis went with Lloyd “I knew Jack Kennedy” Bentsen).
Clinton / Brown (1992)
The 1992 primary, after Paul Tsongas dropped out, was a relatively undramatic affair. Jerry Brown won some states, but by the end of the primaries, Clinton had 52% of the vote and 3,372 of the delegates.
Still, because of the number of votes up for grabs the first week of June, it was not until June 2nd Bill Clinton officially passed the magic number (2,145 that year) and clinched the nomination. He would come out of June 2 with 2,510 delegates. This allowed him to begin the selection of his vice president in earnest. He’d nominate Gore five weeks later, on July 9.
Gore / Bradley
Gore went up against Bradley in 2000, but defeated Bradley handily in early races. Bradley withdrew on March 9, and by March 15 Gore had enough delegates to be declared the nominee. Gore would go on to enter the convention with the highest percentage of the popular vote in Democratic primary history for a non-incumbent: 75%.
Kerry / Edwards
The magic number in 2004 was 2,162. Dean had been the frontrunner leading up to the primaries, but underperformed in Iowa and tanked in New Hampshire, leaving John Edwards as the only viable opposition. By the time Kerry clinched the nomination on March 12, 2004, John Edwards had already withdrawn the previous Tuesday, leaving no rivals for Kerry, and so the announcement of hitting the delegate target was relatively minor.
Due in part to the quick March wrap-up, Kerry entered the convention with 61% of the popular primary vote, the second strongest showing of a non-incumbent candidate in recent history, after Gore.
Obama / Clinton
The 2008 election brought the issue of superdelegates back into the popular mainstream. Still, when Obama made the magic number, the papers did not hedge. With a combination of supers and pledged delegates putting him just over the number he needed, Obama was considered the nominee as of June 3rd, 2008. It is also the case that on June 3rd it was a “last minute rush of superdelegates” that put him over that year’s magic number of 2,118.
Senator Barack Obama claimed the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday evening, prevailing through an epic battle with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in a primary campaign that inspired millions of voters from every corner of America to demand change in Washington.
A last-minute rush of Democratic superdelegates, as well as the results from the final primaries, in Montana and South Dakota, pushed Mr. Obama over the threshold of winning the 2,118 delegates needed to be nominated at the party’s convention in August. The victory for Mr. Obama, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, broke racial barriers and represented a remarkable rise for a man who just four years ago served in the Illinois Senate. (Source)
Wolf Blitzer broke into a McCain speech to say that Obama had secured the nomination. Obama wins the nomination, incidentally, in part by losing South Dakota, but based on him even placing in that contest it was projected that he would get at least four delegates and win.
Of course, the official convention’s confirmation of that nomination would come in a dramatic fashion. As the convention roll call went through the states, they came to New York to ask what their votes were. Although the roll call votes had not nominated Obama yet, Hillary Clinton called for a suspension of regular rules and moved that in the spirit of unity Barack Obama be nominated by acclamation.
Most non-incumbent candidates have needed superdelegates to win, and the history of superdelegates is that once a Democrat hits the magic number and becomes the nominee, superdelegates are more likely to flow to the nominee than from them. In the history of the superdelegates, they have always ended up supporting the decision of the pledged delegates, and their most important contribution has been to amplify leads of the pledged delegate winner so that they can be assured success on a first ballot, and avoid the sort of messy convention that harms a general campaign.
Meeting this number also allows the nominee to do the work of campaigning before the convention, establish a message, build capacity on the ground, pick a vice president, etc.
The press, for its part, has always understood this, from 1984 onward, and has named the nominee (or the “presumptive nominee”) the minute the candidate crosses the line with their combination of pledged and supers. They did that when Mondale had won far fewer states than Hart. They did then when Dukakis did not have 50% of the pledged delegates. They did that when Obama had not won the popular vote. None of these situations has been a hundred percent certain (especially Mondale’s win) but you need the engagement before you can plan the wedding. Ultimately we should expect similar this time around.