Portrait of a Utah Superdelegate

Helen Langan

Utah superdelegate Helen Langan is a Clinton supporter. hide caption

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

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Utah superdelegate Helen Langan is under super pressure as she struggles with her Democratic convention vote.

"I've been flooded with e-mails, phone calls and people stopping me when I'm out and about," Langan says. She's even getting political messages on her My Space page, which is actually devoted to her upcoming wedding.

Langan is a Utah Democratic state committeewoman and a spokeswoman for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. She's never been to a party nominating convention, but she has long experience with the Clintons. The 31-year-old Langan worked in the White House press office during the Clinton administration.

So, it was no surprise in October when she endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. But there was more to Langan's choice than her White House work.

"About a week before I declared my endorsement, I was having a conversation with my 7-year-old niece," Langan explains. "She said, 'Aunt Helen, girls can't be president, can they?'"

Langan asserted that even though there has never been a woman president, "a fine woman was running for President" now.

"That moved me," Langan says. "And it sort of struck me how historic and how meaningful it would be if we could finally see a woman in the White House."

But since that October endorsement for Clinton, Utah Democrats spoke. They overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in the state's Super Tuesday primary Feb. 5. That has Langan thinking twice about how she might vote at the Democratic National Convention Aug. 25-28. And it has Obama and Clinton supporters fighting for her attention.

"Some of these superdelegates aren't even going with the majority of the people in their area," complained an unidentified Obama supporter, who left a long message on Langan's voicemail. "I think that's a very selfish thing for a superdelegate."

For Langan, politics is also personal. She hears from family and friends, as well, and their thinking seems to affect her most.

Take the 32-year-old childhood friend who 'd never voted but who registered to vote for the first time before the Utah primary in February. "And I was sort of shocked and I (asked), 'Why?' " Langan recalls. "She said, 'Because I want to vote for Barack Obama.' And that type of thing moves me almost more than anything else."

The key word there is "almost." Langan's mother also weighed in. She's a "proud independent" who voted for President Bush but is an adamant Clinton supporter now.

"And so I kind of look at those two women, who are as close to me as anyone, with these different perspectives and I really kind of go back and forth about it. And I literally today couldn't tell you definitively who I'm going to vote for ... at the convention"

The personal pressure doesn't stop there. Langan's husband-to-be is an Obama supporter, and he responds to the people who lobby for Obama on the couple's My Space page. He tells them, " 'Don't worry, man. I'm working on her,' " Langan notes with a laugh.

Part of the dilemma is political. Utah is sometimes considered the nation's most Republican state. There are so few Democrats in the Utah Senate that the Senate Democratic Caucus could meet in a minivan. The new Democrats the candidates attract could help elect Democrats in state and local races in the November election.

Langan's childhood friend is emblematic of new voters energized by Obama. Her mother shows that some independent women who've voted Republican will turn to Clinton.

Langan says she can make good cases for both Clinton and Obama, which doesn't make her choice any easier. She believes both would make good presidents.

For the time being, she's staying committed to Clinton. She sees no point in switching to "uncommitted" because she doesn't want to make it appear that suggest she thinks there's something wrong with the New York senator. But she clearly has an open mind.

So, how will superdelegate Helen Langan decide? She'll see who the rest of the country chooses.

"I'm going to wait to sort it out until all the states have had their primaries, because, by then, it's no longer speculation. We'll know how the votes shook out."

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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