Sometimes Bernie Sanders makes the call himself. Sometimes it’s one of his top political staffers. Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Kirk also lends a hand. Together, they are part of a dialing-for-superdelegates operation aimed at capitalizing on his recent run of eight victories in nine contests.
Facing a deficit of more than 200 pledged delegates against Hillary Clinton, the Sanders campaign has turned its attention in recent weeks to wooing undecided superdelegates – the unelected delegates who are free to support any candidate at the national convention.
The pitch, according to superdelegates who have heard it, is a soft-sell — determined, but low-pressure and bereft of any Hillary-bashing. Most recently, the targets have been superdelegates from Western states where Sanders has won big.
Idaho Democratic Party chairman Bert Marley was buttonholed by the Vermont senator backstage before a Sanders rally several days before the state’s March 22 caucuses.
“He just kind of hit me with the notion that I should support him,” Marley said of the discussion. “But it was very low-key. I told him that I was going to wait till after the Idaho Democrats have had their say in the caucus and I was going to make a decision, but I was definitely leaning in his direction. And he let it go after that.
“I kind of walked away impressed that I didn’t get strong-armed or anything like that,” Marley said. He ended up supporting Sanders after his state voted for the Vermont senator by a landslide margin.
Alaska Democratic Party chairwoman Casey Steinau, who is staying neutral in the primary, got a phone call from Sanders after her state’s caucuses on March 26 – another big Sanders win. He was curious as to which way she was leaning.
“It was very nice and we talked very briefly and we had a conversation about Alaska and its relationship to the federal government,” Steinau said. But she wasn’t swayed enough to back him.
Nor was Washington state national committeeman Dave McDonald, who said Sanders officials were in touch with him as far back as October. When Sanders held two rallies in March ahead of the state’s caucus, McDonald got a phone call from Nick Carter, the campaign’s political outreach director, and an offer to meet with Sanders.
“It’s ‘what do you think about the campaign? Where are you these days? What are you thinking?'” McDonald said of Carter’s call. McDonald remains neutral.
One courtship that did work was with Erin Bilbray, a Nevada superdelegate who said she got a call from Sanders late last year while she was picking up her daughter from school. They talked about Planned Parenthood and he assured her that he had a 100 percent voting record in support of the organization, she said.
“I told him I hadn’t decided who I was going to support and he said, ‘take your time and I really hope you consider me and call me if you have any other questions,'” Bilbray recounted. She endorsed Sanders at the end of December, providing him with a notable supporter in advance of the Nevada caucuses in February.
According to interviews with over two dozen superdelegates and Sanders campaign staffers, the campaign’s outreach program centers on a few key people: Sanders; Carter, who handles the day-to-day business of wrangling superdelegates; Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist and consultant for the campaign; and Kirk, who places calls to superdelegates from a “list of possibilities” sent to him by Carter.
“They sort of just let the superdelegates understand that they are serious players and that the Sanders campaign understands that and to kind of keep an open mind and this thing has a final chapter to be written that’s far from over,” said Kirk, himself a Sanders superdelegate. “From my point of view, it’s more like courtesy, advocacy if you will, and not so much ‘we need you now,’ so forth and so on, just because the process is so open. And if you can get some folks just to keep an open mind that’s pretty good.”
The team’s success in wooing undecided superdelegates will play a big role in determining just how far Sanders can take his insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination. Even if Sanders were to catch up to Clinton in pledged delegates, Clinton has a huge head start in superdelegates who publicly support her – 469 to 31, according to the Associated Press count – so he needs to make up ground.
“We’re talking to superdelegates in states that Bernie has done very, very well. States he’s won with overwhelming victories,” Sanders’ chief strategist Tad Devine said. “Ultimately we hope to persuade not only those superdelegates and others, those who are supporting Secretary Clinton, to come on board and support Bernie as opposed to a front-loaded process.”
While Sanders has predicted that his spate of wins in the last nine contests will bring a wave of superdelegates, that hasn’t happened yet. Aside from Marley, Sanders recently won over Democratic Party chairman Peter Corroon in Utah after defeating Clinton there. And after winning Alaska, Democratic Party vice chairman Larry Murakami came into the fold as well. But Sanders has yet to make much of a dent in Clinton’s superdelegate lead.
His campaign continues to express confidence, however, that the longer they extend their winning streak, the more superdelegates will be tempted to migrate to the Vermont senator.
“He obviously has the momentum here on the second half of the primary and caucuses and so I think that their desire to win as he continues to demonstrate that he’s the strongest candidate, I think he will be very popular to superdelegates,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver argued on Tuesday in an interview with CNN.
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