There was a stretch of days and weeks in the not-too-distant past during which Bernie Sanders was winning primary after caucus after primary, but he still seemed unable to cut into Hillary Clinton's lead in any meaningful way.
Clinton had vaulted far ahead of the Vermont Senator with strong showings in the first and second Super Tuesdays of the election. That reality, coupled with the fact that most Democratic primaries award delegates on a proportional, rather than a winner-take-all, basis made it tough for Sanders to close the gap between himself and the former secretary of State.
It didn't help that a majority of superdelegates — elected politicians and party apparatchik who can vote for any candidate — decided to throw their weight behind Clinton early on. Superdelegates are in place to to avoid scenarios like the one currently playing out in the Republican race, and they tend to favor candidates whom they see as most loyal to the Democratic Party. But Sanders' campaign was convinced that, if the political revolution materialized for him at the polls, superdelegates would have a hard time defending a decision to vote for Clinton.
"I think, at the end of the day, we're going to end up with more pledged delegates than Secretary Clinton," Sanders said. "And then I think the superdelegates are going to have make a very difficult decision."
His supporters rallied around the message. A Chicago man named Spencer Thayer created a website called the Superdelegate Hit List (later renamed the Superdelegate List) that provided the names, phone numbers and email addresses of each superdelegate and encouraged supporters to "harass" them into supporting Sanders instead of Clinton. (Thayer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Kim Metcalfe, Alaska's national committee woman one of the state's four unpledged superdelegates, was on the list.
"I shut down my Twitter feed and my Facebook because it was just overwhelming," Metcalfe says of the response she received after declaring she would support Clinton. Some Sanders supporters continued to rail against her using the hashtag #kimmetcalfe when her handle no longer existed.
Metcalfe was unmoved. "People feel like I should support Sanders, but I'm a Hillary delegate and I'm not going to flip to Sanders," she says. "The rules are the rules, and I can support whoever I want."
Metcalfe's experience, say Bob Mulholland, another superdelegate who supports Clinton, was not out of the ordinary. "After that hit list showed up, women — mostly women, DNC members — were getting calls, including at home, at the office, 10:30 at night," he says. "One man, Shawn Bagley here in California, he got a call at 2 a.m., he nearly thought someone in his family was killed in a car accident." He wrote a letter to the Sanders campaign complaining about the behavior.
As the dynamics of the race are changing, and Sanders' path to the nomination is growing narrower, superdelegates are becoming all the more crucial to the senator's campaign. "We want to make a case to superdelegates that Bernie Sanders is the strongest candidate," senior campaign strategist Mark Longabaugh told the LA Times.
That puts Sanders supporters who have previously railed against superdelegates as "undemocratic" in a tough spot — for instance, the coalition of Sanders supporters who created a petition site, Don't Deny Democracy, asking superdelegates to vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote.
Joshua Grossman, president of the super PAC Progressive Kick, calls himself "the ringy-ist" of the website's ringleaders. "We believe in democracy and that everyone's vote should count the same," Grossman says. "We do hope Bernie Sanders wins — this was done to help his campaign — but it was a situation where principles and practicality were in harmony with each other."
He says he stands by the message of his petition, even if it ultimately works against his preferred candidate. "My position hasn't changed; we should respect the cumulative will of the voters and whoever is ahead in pledged delegates that were elected by the people," he says. "The cumulative winner of the pledged delegate count is who should be the Democratic nominee."