This One Thing Bernie Sanders Said About Superdelegates Would Tick His Supporters Off If Hillary Clinton Said It

On Friday night, Vermont senator and self-proclaimed Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders got together with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow for an interview, previewing what could be next for his insurgent presidential campaign. And in doing so, he made some waves. Namely, thanks to a potential strategy that could really shake things up ― something that Bernie Sanders said that would probably anger his supporters if Hillary Clinton had said it.

Namely, his plan ― or at the very least, his openness to the idea ― to upend Clinton's nomination by way of the ever-controversial Democratic superdelegates, even if she's leading him in pledged delegates. That's right: the outsider campaign might try to overtake the decidedly more connected one by the very same method its supporters feared would be used against them, the trove of unbound party officials who can support whomever they please, regardless of the will of the Democratic electorate.

One of the great things about Maddow as an interviewer is that she'll keep prodding a particular issue from at least a couple different angles if she's faced with a reluctant response. And she did a great job trying to pin Sanders down on this point ― she repeatedly asked him whether he'd go all the way to the convention and to sway the superdelegates to his side, even if he was trailing in pledged delegates.

As you can see in the video above, Sanders attempted to avoid saying it outright, but the implication was pretty clear: he's keeping all his options open, and he considers it fair game to make an electability argument to the superdelegates at the convention. Here's his first answer, when Maddow asked him if he could imagine heading into the convention trailing Clinton, but still appealing to the superdelegates to put him over the top.

Secretary Clinton has done phenomenally well in the deep south, and she has picked up a whole lot of delegates there. We are now moving beyond the south, we're moving west, where we think the terrain favors us. ... We think, if we come into the convention in July in Philadelphia, having won a whole lot of delegates, having a whole lot of momentum behind us, and most importantly perhaps, being the candidate who is most likely to defeat Donald Trump, we think some of these superdelegates who have now supported Hillary Clinton can come over to us.

Sanders continued, pointing out that he fares better in a head-to-head general election against Donald Trump than Clinton does (which, at least according to the polls right now, is true). Maddow, to her credit, didn't let it drop there, asking again: "Are you saying that even if you were behind in pledged delegates, I know you think you won’t be, but if you were behind in pledged delegates, you would still take that case all the way to the convention, and try to convince the supers?"

MICHAEL B. THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images

Sanders' response was telling. After first stating that "we are gonna do the best that we can, in any and every way, to win" ― so, yes, in other words ― he then suggested that his campaign might appeal to the superdelegates to vote the way their state contests went, in the same fashion that a pledged delegate would.

Maddow remained undeterred, and asked him once more, this time as a generalized hypothetical: "One of you, presumably, will be behind in pledged delegates heading into that convention. Should the person who is behind in pledged delegates concede to the person who is ahead in pledged delegates, in Philadelphia?" Here's how Sanders responded.

Well, I don’t want to speculate about the future, and I think there are other factors involved. I think it is probably the case that the candidate who has the most pledged delegates is going to be the candidate, but there are other factors. And the other factors will be the strength of each of us in taking on the Republican candidate. What I think is most important to all of the delegates, including the superdelegates, is that we have a candidate who will win, and not allow Donald Trump to end up in the White House.
MICHAEL B. THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images

Obviously, in spite of the tensions that follow almost any discussion of Democratic superdelegates ― they became a subject of controversy in 2008, as well ― they are a viable mechanism that the party's put in place, and it's not out-of-bounds for Sanders to try to use it to his advantage. But this kind of hedging is pretty remarkable considering how this campaign started, a classic turnabout. A big fear all along for Sanders' ardent, die-hard supporters has been that if he somehow seized a pledged delegate lead, that the superdelegates would snake the nomination out from under him, defying the will of the voters to hand it to the far more establishment-entrenched Clinton.

And yet, now the shoe looks to be on the other foot, and it's Sanders who's talking as though he may try (although it'd be a real long shot) to upend the Democratic primary process in this highly controversial, divisive fashion. It's never happened that the Democratic nominee has prevailed purely on the strength of the superdelegates ― rather, the superdelegates have only ever padded the lead of the candidate who was winning the race anyways.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Just play out the counterfactual in your mind a little bit: Clinton is trailing Sanders in pledged delegates, and getting walloped by such wide margins that her ability to make up the ground looks more and more like wishful thinking. Then, she comes out and says that because she's more electable ― let's say she was leading Sanders in a hypothetical Trump matchup ― she might try to sell the superdelegates on installing her as the nominee anyways. Suffice to say, "screaming bloody murder" doesn't begin to approximate the reaction this would spark from Sanders' backers all over the country.

Obviously, it's probably not a huge concern for Clinton ― given the unprecedented nature of what Sanders is hinting at here, as well as the fact that her advantages in the superdelegate department are well-documented, she'll still be a virtual lock if she rolls into the convention with the lead. But all the same, it's a rather shocking shift in approach from Sanders and company, and the double-standard is nakedly obvious.