The Confusion Over Clinton's "Presumptive Status"

The Associated Press caused a bit of a kerfuffle on Monday evening when it called the Democratic primary for Hillary Clinton. Some felt that this was premature — after all, California, New Jersey and four other states haven't even voted yet, and won't until Tuesday. Others defended AP's decision, arguing that it had a responsibility to call the race for Clinton after determining that she had enough delegates to win the nomination. In other words, there's lots of disagreement and confusion over Clinton's "presumptive" nomination status. Here's why.

The AP called the primary for Clinton because it determined that she had a total of 2,383 delegates, the number needed to win party's nomination. In this tally, AP was counting not only Clinton's pledged delegates, but also her superdelegates. The difference is crucial: While Clinton's 1,812 pledged delegates are required to vote for her at the convention, her superdelegates are allowed to change their minds at any time.

AP says that 571 superdelegates will vote for Clinton at the convention — but this claim is based solely on AP's own reporting and interviews with delegates. Hence the controversy: Some, including Bernie Sanders and many of his supporters, don't think AP should count these superdelegate votes, since they're not actually set in stone.. From this perspective, calling the primary for Clinton based on superdelegate support is both premature and deceptive, as it suggests that her lock on the nomination is absolutely definitive, when it fact it isn't.

That’s one perspective on the situation, and it certainly has its merits. But defenders of the AP see things differently. They would point out that the AP is a news organization, after all, and news organizations have an obligation to publish relevant and important things that they've learned through their reporting. If AP has indeed concluded that 571 superdelegates will vote for Clinton at the convention no matter what, the argument goes, it would be irresponsible to not reporting this finding.

In fact, this disagreement is a direct and inevitable consequence of the superdelegate system itself. On the one hand, the intentions of superdelegates are highly relevant to the outcome of primaries, and it's thus fair game to report on them. On the other hand, it's impossible to predict the behavior of a superdelegate with 100 percent certainty, so any reporting about superdelegates' intentions requires, at the very least, a caveat.

For whatever it's worth, the AP was acting within historical precedent: In 2008, the press declared Barack Obama the winner of the Democratic primary after "a last-minute rush of Democratic superdelegates" committed to supporting him. The media is being consistent, if nothing else.