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Superdelegates face tough choices if Sanders winning streak continues

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pumps his fist during a campaign event, Monday, April 4, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

With Bernie Sanders poised for a likely victory over Hillary Clinton in the Wisconsin Democratic primary Tuesday, his campaign is looking ahead to the prospect of a contested convention in July.

"I think what this campaign is looking for and what the senator is looking for is going into the convention and coming out with the nomination," Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told CNN.

The latest Wisconsin polls show Sanders holding a slight lead over Clinton in the state, and her campaign has shifted focus to her home state of New York and its April 19 primary where far more delegates are at stake.

In a letter to supporters posted on Medium Monday night, Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook emphasized that she has won nearly 60 percent of the popular vote in the contests so far. In order to surpass Clinton in the delegate count, Mook argued that Sanders would need substantial victories in New York, Pennsylvania, California, and New Jersey.

Even if Sanders won most of Wisconsin's 86 delegates, he would still be trailing Clinton by about 200 delegates. Mook also noted her "overwhelming lead" among superdelegates.

The more than 700 unpledged superdelegates include the elected officials and Democratic National Committee members who are not bound to a candidate at the convention. Most of superdelegates who have publicly announced their support of a candidate are backing Clinton, but they are free to change their allegiance at any time.

Sanders recently told the Los Angeles Times editorial board that he intends to convince superdelegates that he is more likely to win the general election.

"I think we can demonstrably make the case, and I say this without one second of hesitation, that I am the stronger candidate," he said.

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz predicted on CNN Tuesday that the superdelegates will not be necessary to determine the party's nominee.

According to Michael Traugott, a professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan, superdelegates were created to balance the more ideological voters who turn out for the primaries and to represent the interests of the party in the nomination process.

"The superdelegates reflect the insider part of the party and they're meant to be kind of a counterweight to the elected delegates," Traugott said.

Given Clinton's prominent role in the Democratic Party over the last three decades, it makes sense that superdelegates have gravitated toward her over Sanders, who was an independent in the Senate. If Clinton remains the clear front-runner, many will likely stay loyal to her.

"She doesn't have to be concerned about losing them as long as she keeps doing as well as she does," Traugott said. If she starts losing states like New York and Pennsylvania, or if she faces a legal or personal scandal, that could give Sanders an opening.

A victory in Wisconsin would send Sanders to New York with the momentum of having beaten Clinton in six of the last seven contests, but it will take more than that to turn the tide of the race in his favor and sway unconvinced superdelegates.

"He's not in a position where he can claim that they ought to support them now...He's not the preferred candidate of a majority of Democrats yet," Traugott said.

Democratic strategist Craig Varoga observed that Sanders' own history of comments criticizing the party establishment and the superdelegate system could come back to haunt him if he ends up needing them.

"Sanders is the Energizer Bunny," he said. "He keeps going and going, even though he has no chance to win the nomination, and even though he has trashed the so-called 'establishment,' which includes the superdelegates."

Varoga predicted that Clinton should defeat Sanders in New York. Beyond that, Sanders still faces a difficult fight to convert the superdelegates.

"It's worth noting, obviously, that trashing superdelegates and the role they play in the nomination process is not a sensible strategy for then trying to woo them to support your insurgency," Varoga said.

Arnie Arnesen, a liberal radio host on the Pacifica Network, contends that the role of superdelegates representing the interests of the "Democratic elite upper crust" is out of synch with the attitude of the 2016 electorate.

"This is the year where grass roots and frustration and people feeling empowered, that's the flavor of the month," she said.

As a result, clinging to Clinton in the face of a genuine Sanders surge could reinforce for voters exactly why they do not trust the Democratic establishment.

"It's more than just being tone deaf," Arnesen said. "It's establishing a sense of disengagement and that's not a good thing for anyone who calls themselves a superdelegate."

Some unpledged delegates may face difficult decisions in July. Many elected officials who have endorsed Clinton come from states where Sanders won the popular vote, and they could face primary opposition and angry constituents if they stand by Clinton at the convention.

"They serve the master who's decided what is electable...What does electability mean if it's not based on what voters are saying?" Arnesen said.

Wasserman Schultz indicated in an interview with CNN earlier this year that the superdelegate system protects establishment Democrats from challenges by grassroots activists.

"Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don't have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists," she said in February.

Superdelegates factored heavily in the 2008 Democratic primaries too. Even after she fell behind Barack Obama in the pledged delegate count, Clinton believed the unpledged delegates could be convinced she was the stronger candidate, and she emphasized in public comments that they could switch candidates if the circumstances in the race changed.

"The whole idea of superdelegates is they are supposed to exercise their independent judgment," Clinton said in a February 2008 interview with Tavis Smiley. "Now, it can be on the basis of anything and there is no requirement that it stay on one candidate. It can move because that independent judgment of who would be the best president, who would be the best nominee, who has the best chance to win is obviously going to be affected by the evolving nature of the campaign."

With the Democratic National Convention approaching, Clinton sought to change the minds of some superdelegates who had decided to support Obama. She ultimately suspended her campaign in June and conceded the nomination to Obama, though.

Tad Devine, chief strategist for the 2016 Sanders campaign, wrote in a 2008 op-ed column that superdelegates should make their decision after the states vote and help ratify the results of the primaries to unite the party, rather than choosing a candidate months in advance.

"If the superdelegates determine the party's nominee before primary and caucus voters have rendered a clear verdict," he said at the time, "Democrats risk losing the trust that we are building with voters today."

Many of those concerns still exist today, but the prospect remains that there will not be a clear verdict at the end of the primaries and the superdelegates will ultimately make the choice between Clinton and Sanders for the party.

A Sanders victory in New York would shake up the race and create an opportunity for unpledged delegates to abandon Clinton and align themselves with the grassroots Democrats who support him.

"It's a get-out-of-jail pass for a lot of the superdelegates," Arnesen said.

Sanders currently lags behind Clinton in all New York polls, but the margin varies from one point to 18 points. If he wins Wisconsin, Arnesen suggested Sanders will have two other advantages in New York besides the momentum that brings. One is his position on fracking, which many upstate voters agree with. The other is that he predicted the creation of offshore tax shelters that have been revealed by the leaked Panama Papers this week.

She emphasized the drastic change in the circumstances of the race since many of the unpledged delegates decided to support Clinton. Sanders may be able to show them the energy and enthusiasm behind his campaign and convince them that he represents the will of the Democratic base.

Arnesen expects that in the coming weeks many superdelegates who backed Clinton months ago when she faced no serious challenge for the nomination will "have a come-to-Jesus moment" and reconsider.

"It was a no-brainer," she said of their original decision. "Now, guess what, it's something you have to think about."

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