What's the Deal with Delegates?

With the race for presidential nominations tight on the Republican and Democratic sides, the delegate tally becomes crucial — if confusing. Mark Oglesby, a high school social studies teacher and former delegate, explains.

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BILL WOLFF, host:

By CNN's latest count, John McCain has 97 delegates toward the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Mitt Romney has 74, and Mike Huckabee's got 29. Ron Paul has six to Rudy Giuliani's two. Among Democratic delegates and super delegates, Hillary Clinton has 232, Barack Obama has 158 and John Edwards has 62. However, according to the Associated Press, those numbers are different. Even organizations whose purpose is to determine the delegate count can't agree - between the super delegates and the delegates, and the states that don't get delegates in the winner-take-all in Nevada, which Clinton won then Obama came away…

ALISON STEWART, host:

Okay, my head's starting to hurt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Understanding the rules of a nominating process is like walking in cold to a game of Dungeons & Dragons. We know what the prize is, but are they just making this stuff up as they go along?

It would take a social studies teacher to make the process clear. So we found one, a good one.

Mark Oglesby is a social studies teacher at Howell High School in Michigan. He's the reigning Howell Public Schools' teacher of the year and, get this, he was a delegate in 1996.

Hello, Mr. Oglesby.

Mr. MARK OGLESBY (Social Studies Teacher, Howell High School): Hello, how are you doing today?

WOLFF: Fantastic. Thank you for joining us. I am thoroughly interested in getting better educated about delegates. Can we get basic?

Mr. OGLESBY: Yeah, it's my pleasure to be here. Thank you for the opportunity.

WOLFF: Okay.

Mr. OGLESBY: Although I couldn't explain Dungeons & Dragons for you. (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: No comment. Now, I want to know first, how is a delegate picked? How do - very basically, how is it determined that one delegate will represent whichever candidate?

Mr. OGLESBY: Well, really, it's up to each political party and each state. It's federalism in action. So the states, along with the parties, determine if they're going to have a caucus or a primary to determine the delegates and who of those delegates are going to be voting for at their party's convention. So, I mean, the simple answer is it's up to each individual state. And then that's where we have, as you talked about, the different rules, you know?

WOLFF: Okay. So we're still in trouble in terms of clarity.

Mr. OGLESBY: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Does a delegate have free will? So, you are - let's say you are a delegate and let - we'll choose the Democratic Party.

Mr. OGLESBY: Okay.

WOLFF: And your state party says, you, sir, are a delegate who will represent Mike Gravel. And you say, oh, I don't want to do that. I'd rather represent Dennis Kucinich. Do you have that free will, or must you accept the assignment of the party?

Mr. OGLESBY: Most states, you have to accept the assignment of the party. You are pledged on the first ballot at the National Convention. Now, in recent years, that's been a non-issue because each political party has had - there's been a candidate with the majority of the vote on that first ballot. Where it could be interesting is if no one has a majority at the convention, then on the second ballot, the delegates are free.

WOLFF: So, they have enormous power on the second ballot.

Mr. OGLESBY: Yes.

WOLFF: An individual who may or may not represent a wider representation of his fellow citizens can make the choice in the case of a second or third or fourth ballot.

Mr. OGLESBY: Yes, if we can get there. As it looks right now, my guess is the Democratic Party is not going to get to a second ballot now with Edwards dropping out. With the Republican Party, we still have, you know, three candidates. It could get to that point.

WOLFF: Okay. So John Edwards didn't win a primary. He still ended up with some delegates. And now he has suspended his race, and we expect that he will drop out eventually.

Mr. OGLESBY: Yes. And that he hasn't endorsed anyone, but some of his delegates have already moved. I was actually reading this morning, 10 of his delegates, per the party rules, the Democratic Party rules, were divided between Senators Obama and Clinton based upon their percentages of the vote. But he still has 16 delegates that are bound to him.

WOLFF: Okay. So those 10 delegates, did they assign themselves, or were they assigned by the party?

Mr. OGLESBY: They were assigned by the party.

WOLFF: Okay. And what happens to the 16 delegates that John Edwards still holds?

Mr. OGLESBY: As I understand it right now, they're bound to him, but he can release them if he chooses to under the party rules. And then he has some control over where they would go.

STEWART: You're creating some - quite some imagery.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Okay.

STEWART: I can tell, release the delegates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Well, okay. So Edwards releases the delegates, and then you say he has some control over where they go.

Mr. OGLESBY: Yeah, according to the party rules, as I understand them.

WOLFF: I see. So John Edwards can say, you seven delegates go to one candidate, and you three go to another?

Mr. OGLESBY: Sounds like it, as the party is saying, that he has the say in naming them where they might go. He could choose not to release them, also, as I understand it.

WOLFF: I see. And…

Mr. OGLESBY: So, on the - he would get some votes on the first ballot, you know, at the convention.

WOLFF: Are the rules the same in the Republican Party? Rudy Giuliani has at least one delegate. He endorsed yesterday John McCain. Does John McCain get Rudy Giuliani's delegate or delegates?

Mr. OGLESBY: Not necessarily. It would also depend upon the state's rules. For example, when I was a delegate in 1996, I was a teacher on the state of Washington, living there, and we were bound. So, the state party had rules that bound us, regardless of the candidate. So, if the state has - you know, that's federalism in action. We've got our national rules, and we have our state rules too. So…

WOLFF: Okay. I'd like now to get into the one thing that to me is most confusing about this. The super delegate.

STEWART: Do they get capes?

WOLFF: Well…

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Do they have super powers? What is a super delegate? How does one get to be a super delegate? And how much - how are the rules that govern super delegates different from the rules that govern ordinary civilian delegates?

Mr. OGLESBY: Well, the phrase - as we talk about super delegates, we're talking about the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party, in total, has 4,049 delegates at their convention. 3,253 are pledged, and they have 796 super delegates. Those super delegates are not bound to anyone. How they become a super delegate is they are the elected officials in their state. They are political party leaders in their state. So they're essentially Democratic Party officials - you know, governors, senators, members of Congress, key party, you know, county party, chair of state…

STEWART: So that's why the super endorsements from the likes of Ted Kennedy are really important…

Mr. OGLESBY: Yeah.

STEWART: …because they can sort of woo the super delegates. The governors of states and senators.

Mr. OGLESBY: Along with the people that support Senator Kennedy as well. You know, he's hoping that the people that support him will then support Senator Obama in his presidential bid. But even with Senator Kennedy's endorsement, Senator Kennedy at the convention can decide to vote for Senator Clinton, because he won't be a bound delegate. So…

WOLFF: So a super delegate has a greater degree of autonomy than an ordinary delegate.

Mr. OGLESBY: Correct. And in the Republican side, they actually have 123 what are called RNC delegates, so they're Republican National Party members. And generally, the leader's there.

WOLFF: So it sounds as if the delegate count is a very fluid situation, which could change at the convention. What use are the media's delegate counts leading up to it? We have these standings. Do they mean anything?

Mr. OGLESBY: Well, it's interesting that you say that, because my students, we talk about this all the time. And one of the things I'd like to focus on is how the media is covering an event. And you mentioned Nevada in the lead in. Senator Clinton won if you looked at the percentage of the vote. But if you actually look at the delegate vote, Senator Obama actually had one more of the pledged delegates.

So how they cover it is an issue or concern that I try to have my students look at it. I mean, if we're looking - just the pledged delegates right now, Senator Obama has 63 to Senator Clinton's 48.

But as you mentioned, when you factor in the super delegates, Senator Clinton has 232 to 158.

STEWART: Mr. Oglesby, it's basically, game on.

Mr. OGLESBY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Mark Oglesby, Howell High teacher from Howell, Michigan, thanks for being on the BPP.

WOLFF: We appreciate it.

Mr. OGLESBY: Thank you very much.

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