Hillary Clinton's "Presumptive" Nominee Status Is Actually Pretty Pedantic

The Associated Press declared Hillary Clinton the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for president on Monday evening. But why is she only the “presumptive nominee,” as opposed to the actual nominee? Doesn’t she have enough delegates to be the official nominee? Kind of, but not totally. Clinton’s “presumptive” status is pedantic and nit-picky — but it is technically correct, and there’s a good reason why journalists keep using that word.

It all boils down to delegates. Contrary to popular belief, primary and caucus voters don’t actually vote for candidates — they vote for delegates who are pledged to support certain candidates. Those delegates then cast their votes at the national convention, and that’s how the party’s nominee is officially chosen. Delegates act as an intermediary between voters and the official party apparatus; they, and only they, are responsible for nominating the party’s presidential candidate.

The AP called the race for Clinton because she has support from a majority of delegates — this count includes both the pledged delegates she won in the primaries and the superdelegates who've committed to supporting her. However, she won't officially be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee until all of these delegates cast their votes at the convention. It’s almost a sure thing that she’ll win this vote — but it’s not a 100 percent sure thing. And because of that, the word “presumptive” is still necessary, at least if one wants to be factually accurate in the most technical sense.

Bernie Sanders is attempting to flip Clinton-aligned superdelegates to his side.The strategy is overwhelmingly likely to fail, for a whole host of reasons, but there’s a remote chance that he could succeed. As long as this remote chance exists, we have to keep using the word “presumptive” to describe Clinton’s nomination status.

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But what’s the harm, you ask, of dropping the word “presumptive” when everyone knows with 99 percent certainty that Clinton will be nominee? It’s a good question, and for most Americans, there’s no harm in this.

The calculus is different for the media, however. Political journalists would look mighty silly if they spent months referring to Clinton as the nominee only to see Sanders, through some massive stroke of luck, win the nomination at the convention. This election cycle has already been plenty embarrassing to political reporters, so in the name of avoiding further humiliation, they (we) include the word “presumptive” whenever describing Clinton’s nomination status.

This cautious approach does reflect an objective truth: Clinton isn’t actually the nominee yet. But for most people, it’s a distinction without a difference. The phrase “presumptive nominee” allows for caution and technical accuracy, but in most contexts, “nominee” is more than sufficient to communicate the point.