Focusing on Superdelegates in Democratic Race

As the Democratic presidential battle grinds on, the role of superdelegates remains critical. Sen. Hillary Clinton needs more superdelegates on her side if she is to wrest the nomination from Sen. Barack Obama.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

In this country former President Bill Clinton is in San Jose at the California Democratic Convention today. He's there to seek support for his wife's presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton already won the California primary in February but some two dozen delegates remain uncommitted. These are the superdelegates, and they are part of a national group who automatically attend the party's nominating convention.

With the race to top the Democratic presidential ticket between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton so close their votes will determine the winner. NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving is with us. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Grand total - how many superdelegates are there and what's their role?

ELVING: There are just under 800 superdelegates at this point. The number fluctuates just a little bit. And they've been around for 30 years, ever since the party got the conviction that they had gone too far in making their process too democratic, too egalitarian and letting all of the delegates be selected through the primaries and caucuses. They wanted to get the office holders back in there.

And at first there were just a few hundred of these but now it's grown to be a fifth of the overall total, and the superdelegates are a major force, are now a pivotal force in the process.

HANSEN: You said office holders. Who exactly are these superdelegates and how do they cast their votes?

ELVING: First of all, you've got every Democratic governor, you've got every Democratic senator, you've got every Democratic member of Congress and then you've got all of the Democratic National Committee. That's about half the superdelegates just on the Democratic National Committee. You also throw in former presidents and presidential nominees - and there are six living Democratic nominees for president. You also have some other statewide officers, state party chairs, a few former state party chairs and about 100 other people who get chosen as what they call add-ons at some of the state party conventions, such as what's going on in California today.

HANSEN: Now, so how do they vote?

ELVING: Well, they vote just about like regular delegates. You know, they just sort of blend in with the rest of the state delegations. They're on the floor when they're actually taking that dramatic roll call vote on Wednesday night and actually casting their votes.

But right now they're not being counted in the totals for each state because they're all still free agents. So we have a pledged delegate total that shows Barack Obama ahead by about 160 or a few less than that. And then if you add in the commitments that have been stated by superdelegates, that reduces his lead by about 30 to 35.

So they're a little bit different at this point. But when they actually get to the floor in August in Denver they're going to vote just like other delegates.

HANSEN: All right. Because of their role this year there are critics who say that, you know, having a bunch of politicians and party officials deciding the nominees is actually a blow to the democratic process because it might turn off voters in the general election in November. What do you think?

ELVING: It's a risk. It's a risk you take any time you have automatic delegates - people who are delegates by virtue of their office rather than being tied to a primary or a caucus. And especially, of course, if the superdelegate result is different from the pledged delegate result. That's where you're going to have the supporters of whichever candidate does not win feeling as though in some sense or another they've been robbed.

But here's a question: should a superdelegate follow the pledged delegate results nationally or the results from that particular superdelegate state. Which would be the more democratic behavior?

HANSEN: Behavior - since Super Tuesday, Senator Hillary Clinton's lead in superdelegates narrowed. She had more than a hundred then she went to fewer than 40. And her campaign says that the regular pledged delegates you're talking about they're free to change their minds legally. Is that true?

ELVING: Yes, legally speaking, and that's why the Clinton people have started referring to so-called pledged delegates. If one of them or two of them or some of them were to change their minds, they could still vote and their votes would still count. But you have to bear in mind that the people who are pledged delegates weren't just assigned to a candidate, they stood for election as delegates for one candidate or the other. They're pledged and committed from the outset and defections are pretty rare.

HANSEN: Okay. Yes or no: what about having all the superdelegates get together after the primaries in June to have a big superdelegates primary to settle this thing?

ELVING: It would save a lot of money and it would save a lot of blood and it would probably be very pleasing to the Democratic national officials. But it would also be preempting the role of the convention itself and one of the two candidates is probably not going to be very excited about it by the time we get to June. So I wouldn't count on that happening although it's a lovely idea.

HANSEN: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And in the days ahead NPR will be reporting on superdelegates in a series called the Backroom Primary. And we'll listen for that series. Thanks, Ron.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Superdelegates Enjoy an Abundance of Attention

Suppose you wanted a "Hillary for President" highlighter set.

The campaign has them for sale: star-shaped, with five colored markers. They cost $5.

To buy a Hillary highlighter, you would go to Clinton's campaign Web site and click on the button that says "store." That would take you to HillaryStore.com, which is not actually run by the campaign. The campaign instead contracted it out to a supplier, Financial Innovations Inc. of Cranston, R.I.

The owner of Financial Innovations is Mark Weiner, a superdelegate and one of the 794 Democratic elite whose votes at the convention will settle the Democratic contest and give the presidential nomination to either New York Sen. Hillary Clinton or Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. The superdelegates primarily are elected officials and party leaders; unlike ordinary delegates, chosen by state primaries and caucuses, superdelegates go to the convention because of who they are, not who they are pledged to support.

Weiner started making Democratic campaign paraphernalia in 1976, when Jimmy Carter first ran for president, and he has been at it ever since. He has also served as Rhode Island Democratic chairman. But as Rhode Island blogger and Obama supporter Matt Jerzyk points out, Weiner comes by his superdelegate status for other reasons.

"The real story is he's a very close Clinton friend," Jerzyk says. "He's raised incredible amounts of money — not only for the Clintons, but for dozens and dozens of other federal Democratic candidates around the country."

Weiner is in poor health right now and declined to be interviewed.

Clinton and Obama began wooing prospective superdelegates before the presidential race even officially started. Both had political action committees: Clinton had HillPAC for Clinton, Obama had the Hope Fund. The committees spread contributions to prominent Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire and other key states.

The Center for Responsive Politics calculates that since they became official candidates, Clinton and Obama have given nearly $1 million, combined, to elected officials who are superdelegates. Obama, as a newcomer trying to overcome the years that Clinton spent networking, accounts for about three of every four dollars contributed.

But the motives behind the money can be more subtle than they look. Superdelegates are super because they already have political power, and that in itself draws the presidential candidates.

Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant, says the presidential candidates need to build an organization in each important state, "and one of the ways that politicians do this is by trying to go out and meet elected officials, and showing people in that state that you share the values of that elected official and you support their causes."

Campaign money is one means of facilitating these relationships.

"Someone like Obama, who's a relative newcomer who hasn't built up as many personal relationships as someone like Sen. Clinton, will use this currency to get attention," says Ray LaRaja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

And when superdelegates make their endorsements, they see stars, not dollar signs. LaRaja suggests the thought process of a superdelegate: "'The president of the United States could be coming to my backyard for a barbecue with all my constituents.' That's more important to them than getting a few thousand dollars in cash."

Beyond barbecues, he says superdelegates dream of patronage jobs in Washington, of federal spending projects in their home states, even of changes in social policy or tax law.

It may be the one time when a fat campaign check looks puny — a small investment in what might be called White House futures.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: