The Superdelegates Are Nervous

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host, writing to you aboard a flight to Texas, one of the states voting next week on Super Tuesday.

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This week, I took a brief break from chasing candidates across the country to conduct a little stress test on the Democratic Party establishment.

Over the past few days, my colleague Reid Epstein and I interviewed 93(!) superdelegates — the elected officials, Democratic National Committee members and other party leaders who could play a role in choosing a nominee at the national convention. Most of them have spent years, or even decades, working to elect Democrats to all levels of government.

After nearly 100 interviews, I can confidently report back to you, dear readers, that in some quarters of the Democratic Party, the anxiety about Senator Bernie Sanders’s popular vote victories in the first three nominating contests is real — and rising.

We are talking palm-sweating, meditation-app-subscribing, yoga-retreat-scheduling levels of anxiety.

One prominent Democrat put the “freakout level” at a 12 — on a scale of one to 10. In private conversations, members of Congress used words like “disaster” and said Mr. Sanders had “hijacked the party.” One lawmaker described the mind-set as “depression mode.” (Many of these people threw in some expletives, too.)

Much of these Democrats’ concern is rooted in fears that having Mr. Sanders at the top of the ticket could cost Democrats seats in competitive House and Senate races, particularly in states like Arizona and Ohio, where some fear his liberal platform could alienate the more moderate suburban voters who helped Democrats win back the House in 2018.

“Bernie Sanders most certainly is not our strongest candidate,” said Will Cheek, a D.N.C. member from Tennessee. “I intend to firmly and resolutely fight for the strongest candidate.”

Of course, there are some committee members who support Mr. Sanders. But they were a clear minority in the group we surveyed — only nine of the people we interviewed said Mr. Sanders should be the party nominee if he captures the most delegates but falls short of a majority.

One of them, Yasmine Taeb, a committee member from Virginia, argued that the party should be more concerned about a candidate like Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor.

“Why shouldn’t D.N.C. members — especially the ones of us who were elected by the grass roots — instead be concerned about a former Republican sexist billionaire who is trying to buy the election? I certainly am,” Ms. Taeb said. “I’m not concerned, however, with the progressive candidate with the largest grass-roots support across the country to win the nomination, because that’s precisely what is needed to defeat Donald Trump.”

Mr. Sanders and his advisers agree that his ideas will generate huge excitement among young and working-class voters, and lead to record turnout. (Such hopes have yet to be borne out in nominating contests so far, however.)

You may be wondering why I spent so much time interviewing these party officials. Winning the nomination is based on support from voters in primaries and caucuses, right?

Not necessarily.

Those contests proportionally award pledged delegates to candidates who reach 15 percent support in a state or congressional district. Under party rules, the candidate who captures a majority of the pledged delegates becomes the nominee.

But if no one hits the magic number of 1,991 pledged delegates, the contest goes to a second ballot at the party’s convention. That’s when the superdelegates could get involved. On that ballot, all 3,979 pledged delegates and 771 superdelegates would be free to vote for any candidate they chose.

From our reporting, Reid and I got the distinct sense that a faction of the Democratic Party is worried enough about Mr. Sanders that they are willing to throw the party into a brokered convention, the kind of messy political battle not seen since 1952, when the Democratic nominee was Adlai Stevenson.

And the crowded primary has prompted many Democrats to believe that such an outcome is not just possible but probable. (Cooler heads at the Democratic National Committee maintain that the party is highly unlikely to head to the convention without an assured nominee.)

But if it happens? Well, that Democratic “freakout level” just might break the scale.

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Each week, our colleagues from The New York Times’s Opinion section share expert analysis and perspectives from across the political spectrum.

As we approach Super Tuesday, our opinion columnists are asking the same question: Will Bernie Sanders be the Democrats’ nominee? Mr. Sanders says that he has the highest favorability ratings of any candidate and that he can engender support among young and minority voters. But will that be enough?

Mr. Sanders’s “early-state successes have given him a clear path to a plurality of pledged convention delegates,” Ross Douthat writes. But if some of the other candidates who aren’t actually winning primaries don’t drop out, he argues, Mr. Sanders will build an insurmountable advantage. And the superdelegates may find themselves irrelevant: “A world where Sanders is on track to get a clear delegate plurality in late March is probably a world where he gets a majority by May,” Mr. Douthat says.

As the Democratic nominee, could Mr. Sanders unify the party and reach outside his base for support? David Leonhardt notes that the four most recent presidents all “tried to appeal to voters who weren’t obvious supporters.” Mr. Sanders isn’t doing this, which makes him less than “an ideal Democratic nominee,” Mr. Leonhardt says.

For the most part, the other Democratic candidates in the race — as Tuesday night’s debate made clear — agree with Mr. Leonhardt. A few of the candidates “don’t merely see Sanders as a less-than-ideal adversary for Trump. They see him as political suicide,” writes Frank Bruni. He said that watching Tuesday’s debate was like watching “a political party devour itself.”

If you’ve seen our debate-night preview pages, you’re probably familiar with the candidate lineups we put at the top:

Well, leave it to Twitter to discover how much fun you can have if you hack the page.

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