Backroom Primary: Reaching Out to Superdelegates

Sen. Barack Obama received another superdelegate pledge Wednesday, this one from Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal. That brings the overall pledged delegate count to 1,632 for Obama, 1,500 for Sen. Hillary Clinton. Clinton maintains a lead among superdelegates, but it has been narrowing since Feb. 5.

Since neither candidate is expected to win enough pledged delegates to clinch the Democratic Party nomination, the votes of the superdelegates — elected officials and party activists who are not bound to any candidate by primary vote — are crucial.

There are polls and surveys to measure almost everything, but not the anxiety level of Democratic leaders who fear that every day their bitter primary battle drags on it weakens the eventual nominee in a general election that should be theirs to lose. But superdelegate Debra Kozikowski of Massachusetts says she needs the race to go on longer to help her make up her mind.

"We have a tough pragmatic fighter on the one side," she says. "We have an inspirational, dedicated leader on the other. And who's to say which one is the best candidate? For somebody like me, it has to be the preponderance of the evidence of who has the best opportunity to win in November and that evidence has yet to be completed."

There are 10 remaining primaries, and shortly after the last ones on June 3, the remaining superdelegates are expected to make up their minds so that the race doesn't go on to the Democratic National Convention in August. Until then, the supers are listening to the arguments of both campaigns. Obama's is simple — he's won more delegates, more states and more popular votes.

David McDonald, an uncommitted superdelegate from Washington, says Obama "scrambles the electoral map in a different way because of what's going on in the states that are becoming important to the Democratic Party for the first time in say 30 or 40 years. The increased interest in those states [make it likely it] will propel candidates down the ticket into being into competitive races."

Clinton argues that the big swing states she's won — like Florida and Ohio — have historically been more important to Democrats in general elections, and that her voters — working-class whites and Hispanics — are less likely to vote for Obama in a general election. As long as she's trailing Obama in pledged delegates and the popular vote, it's a hard argument to make.

But Bill Galston, a former Clinton White House aide, says it will become easier if she can do really well in the remaining contests.

"Consider the following scenario: If she wins by double digits in Pennsylvania, she will narrow the gap in pledged delegates to the point where I think at the end of the process, a lot of people are going say out of 3,200-and-some-odd pledged delegates there's a gap of 50," Galston says. "This is the moral equivalent of a tie."

But after a long and increasingly bitter primary fight, there are other considerations, says Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and uncommitted superdelegate.

"I think superdelegates would like to make sure at the end of the day that we're not only electing the best president, but we're also working to unify the party."

But what if it's hard to figure out how to unify the party and pick the strongest candidate at the same time? There are superdelegates who think Clinton is a tougher, stronger candidate for the general election. But if she doesn't sweep the remaining primaries, they worry that giving her the nomination could alienate the future of the party — African Americans and all those young voters Obama's brought in — the most reliable voters the Democrats have.

It's an excruciating decision for many of them, but the dirty little secret, says Brazile, is that plenty of the "uncommitted" superdelegates have actually made up their minds.

"I have a sneaking suspicion," Brazile says, "that we know exactly which one we're for, although we've decided to remain neutral as a matter of duty to the party — to keep the party together. There will not be a sign from heaven. There will have to be a sign based on our own conscience, in terms of which candidate we want to send out there this fall."

The superdelegates may know which way they will go, but the rest of us will have to wait till the end of June to find out how this extraordinary primary battle will end.

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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