Hillary Clinton superdelegate advantage hinges on Super Tuesday
But her real test will come on March 1, when she must show her support extends beyond party officials to the Democratic base.
Clinton leads Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the all-important delegate count by a 502 to 70 margin. The bulk of Clinton's lead comes from super delegates — the 712 Democratic elected officials and party leaders who can commit to a particular presidential candidate long before voters in their states head to the polls.
Sanders supporters have been vocal in their opposition to superdelegates supporting Clinton over Sanders, particularly after Sanders' sweeping victory over Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, which saw him win 36 of the state's delegates while Clinton, who finished 22 points behind Sanders, won 32.
Groups like MoveOn.org created online petitions in the wake of the New Hampshire vote to urge superdelegates to hold off supporting either Sanders or Clinton until the primary season ends.
One such petition, from Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, says "Democracy only works when the votes of the people — not the decision of a small number of elites — are what determines the outcome of elections." The petition currently has more than 172,000 signatures.
But peeling superdelegates away from Clinton will be extremely difficult, according to Paul Goldman, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia and a key strategist behind the campaigns of former Virginia Govs. Doug Wilder and Mark Warner.
"These folks do not believe the polls," showing Sanders running a strong race against Clinton nationally, Goldman told AMI Newswire. "They believe the bloom will come off the Sanders rose long before the primaries end."
"The other simple fact is Bernie has been running against them for more than 20 years," Goldman said. "His critique of the Democratic Party is that it has been insufficiently liberal, not willing to spend enough, not willing to tax enough. Professional Democrats just don't like him. That's why the superdelegates will be very reluctant to turn away from Hillary and toward Bernie."
That's not to say Sanders hasn't already had a profound effect on the Democratic race. Goldman believes his far-left impact shows in the type of campaign Clinton is running.
"Clinton wanted to run as a center-left candidate," he said. "But a lot of the same troubles that arose when she ran against Obama in 2008 have happened again," he said.
"Bernie is getting Hillary to talk about his issues, and that's defining the race," he said. "He has critical mass, a big donor base, and Bernie won't be stopped by the superdelegates."
Democratic Party of Virginia spokeswoman Emily Bolton downplayed the prospect of grassroots agitation about Virginia's superdelegates. "The rules are the same as 2008 and we don't see any issue with the process," Bolton told AMI Newswire.
In the 2008 race between Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton maintained a commanding lead among superdelegates until Obama began to rack up a string of victories in caucus and primary states. Eventually, superdelegates began to flip, switching their support from Clinton to Obama.
Asked what would happen should a similar scenario play itself out this year between Clinton and Sanders, Goldman was blunt.
"If Sanders makes a breakthrough, which could be tough in the states ahead on the calendar, Democrats will have a harder and harder time saying superdelegates should choose the nominee," he said. "There will be a lot of calculations going on behind the curtain if Bernie takes off. How much do these superdelegates want to get on his bad side if he starts posting wins? They can't afford to be seen as ramming Hillary's nomination through."
Goldman said the Clinton campaign has already had to shift its strategy significantly to address the Sanders phenomenon.
"Their Plan A was to say 'we're so far ahead in the polls, this guy is not an issue,'" Goldman said.
"When that didn't pan out, they went to Plan B, which is to put up a big win on Super Tuesday," he said. "If they can win across the board, or come close, the Clinton campaign can say the race is over."
"Plan C is to gut it out" Goldman said. "This one is a fight to the very end — a slugfest all the way to the convention. It throws away her advantage with superdelegates entirely.
"Bernie will love it," Goldman said. "But that's not where Clinton wants to be."