Backroom Primary: Bill Clinton Courts California

Former President Bill Clinton told Democratic superdelegates and activists on Sunday that they should "chill out" about selecting a nominee, and that the protracted primary election contest would not hurt the party's chances in November.

His wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, trails rival Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in pledged delegates, and prominent Democrats have called on her to drop out of the race. She has responded by saying she will take her fight for the nomination all the way to the national convention in August.

It was left to Bill Clinton to convince California Democrats this weekend that this was a good thing.

"Don't you let anybody tell you that somehow we are weakening the Democratic Party by telling the people in Pennsylvania and North Carolina and Indiana and Kentucky and West Virginia and Montana and South Dakota and Oregon and Puerto Rico that they count, too," Clinton said in San Jose at the state party's annual convention.

"We are strengthening the Democratic Party. Chill out. We are going to win this election," he said.

Clinton addressed more than 2,000 activists, but his real target audience was a smaller group of nearly two dozen party stalwarts who are undeclared superdelegates.

Before his speech, Clinton met privately with many of those who have yet to declare allegiance to either candidate. Superdelegates are the roughly 800 party members who can vote for a candidate regardless of the popular vote; many are also politicians, including governors or members of Congress.

Crystal Strait, the head of the California Young Democrats, said she had already spoken with campaign surrogates and candidates before Clinton's visit to San Jose.

"I had a great conversation with Sen. Clinton. I've spoken with her daughter. Sen. Daschle called me on behalf of Sen. Obama," Strait said.

The courting process is nothing but talk, superdelegates say. They aren't offered flowers or chocolates or Lakers tickets. Superdelegate Steven Ybarra, who is on the Democratic National Committee, says he couldn't even persuade anyone to buy him a beer the previous night.

Superdelegates may remain undecided for different reasons. For her part, Straight said she does not see her choice of candidate as a personal decision.

"It's about my judgment to weigh what's best for the youth in America, and that's at the end of the day how I'll make my decision," she said.

Ybarra said he will throw his support to the candidate who commits to a concrete plan for increasing outreach to Latinos.

"There's no reason for Latinos on the DNC to go to that convention to vote for a candidate until there's a strong commitment to what that candidate's going to do for us," Ybarra said. "And I'll tell you something, I'm willing to hold out until the third vote."

The idea that it would take three or more ballots at the national convention to choose a nominee is anathema to the party leadership. DNC Chairman Howard Dean has asked superdelegates to make their decisions by July 1.

In San Jose, many uncommitted superdelegates remained uncommitted even after their meetings with the former president.

"President Clinton was very focused on the fact that we have time and that there is a process," said Strait, who noted he did not seem to be pushing them that hard to make a decision.

If a large block of superdelegates remains uncommitted, it could bolster Hillary Clinton's argument that she has a reason to continue her fight for the nomination.

Superdelegates Primer: What You Need to Know

Listen to superdelegates across the country describe which candidate they are supporting — or why they are uncommitted. hide caption

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Want to Know More?

In a new series, "The Backroom Primary," NPR takes an in-depth look at superdelegates and the role they will play (and are playing). The series, which will appear on many NPR programs, will include mini-profiles of superdelegates; conversations with superdelegates who are bucking the will of the people in their districts; and the prospect, first raised by Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, of a "superdelegate primary" in June, after all the other primaries and caucuses have taken place.

With no primaries since early March and none to come before Pennsylvania on April 22, the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination would seem to be in a weird holding pattern. Yet the delegate count continues to change nearly each day. (As of this writing, according to the Associated Press, Illinois Barack Obama has 1,632 delegates, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, 1,500.)

How, one might ask, could the totals continue to fluctuate if voters are not participating? The answer: superdelegates. Here, a guide to those political creatures and the role they will play in deciding the Democratic nominee for president.

What's a superdelegate?

As much of America must know by now, superdelegates are those Democratic Party leaders and elected officials who are automatically delegates to the national convention. In order to win the Democratic presidential nomination, a candidate must win not only the pledged delegates who are apportioned according to the results of the primaries or caucuses, but enough of the superdelegates, who can choose to endorse whichever candidate they wish, regardless of the results of primaries in their state or district.

Who gets to be a superdelegate?

Every Democratic member of the House and Senate, every Democratic governor and members of the Democratic National Committee (such as state party chairs, vice chairs and national committeemen and women) automatically get to be superdelegates. Also included: former Democratic presidents and vice presidents, former Democratic House and Senate leaders, and ex-DNC chairs.

How do superdelegates decide which candidate to support?

Though they aren't bound by the results of primaries or caucuses, superdelegates will often throw their support to whomever they think will make the stronger presidential nominee in the general election. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar says that's one of the reasons why she decided to endorse Obama on Monday.

Sometimes, pressure back home makes a difference. Georgia Rep. John Lewis, an influential member of Congress, initially endorsed Clinton last year. But his district went overwhelmingly for Obama in the February primary, so Lewis made the unusual decision to switch his support to the Illinois senator.

How many superdelegates are there?

That figure is a moving target. For a long time, the number was listed at 796. But then things began to happen: Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, resigned following a sex scandal. That removed one superdelegate (he happened to support Clinton). Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila, who is under indictment in a corruption case, is under pressure to resign, too. (He supports Obama).

The Democrats picked up a superdelegate when they won the congressional seat of former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert in a special election in Illinois in March. They lost one with the death of Rep. Tom Lantos of California. But they will regain that superdelegate if former state Sen. Jackie Speier, who is heavily favored, wins the special election to fill the remainder of Lantos' term. And so on.

How many are still undecided?

Roughly 250 or so superdelegates have yet to commit to a candidate. (There are 70 or so additional superdelegates who will not be named until the conventions).

The 250 superdelegates are being wooed by Clinton and Obama in a process is mostly hidden from public view, but its importance cannot be overstated. It is mathematically impossible for either Obama or Clinton to win the Democratic nomination outright without these superdelegates.

Where did the concept of superdelegates come from?

Democrats first introduced superdelegates in 1984 as a safety net — they wanted to give the party elders a voice in choosing the nominee. The goal: to prevent the Democrats from repeating what many viewed as a mistake when they nominated Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota in 1972. McGovern went on to lose 49 states that year.

Similarly, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter won the nomination in 1976, against the wishes of many in the party establishment. We should note, however, that their support for former Vice President Walter Mondale, the choice of the Democratic establishment, in 1984 is widely credited with putting him over the top against challenger Gary Hart. Mondale went on to lose 49 states that November.

Why do superdelegates get to play such a big role?

They don't — usually. That's because in the past, the battle for the Democratic nomination had been settled fairly early. Michael Dukakis (in 1988) and Bill Clinton (four years later) established themselves as the clear front-runners fairly early in the process. It was even more one-sided in 2000, when Democrats nominated Al Gore, and in 2004, when John Kerry got the nod. The superdelegates really didn't have much of a role to play. But this time it's different. Neither Obama nor Clinton is running away with the nomination. And that puts the supers in a position they have never been in before.

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