Colorado Democrat Stays Mum on Presidential Pick

Pat Waak

Colorado Democratic Party Chair and superdelegate Pat Waak (right) at the Larimer County Democratic Party breakfast in Fort Collins, April 2, 2008. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR

Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak insists that she will show no favor to either presidential candidate until all states have voted and all pledged delegates have been assigned — despite her own state's strong caucus preference for Barack Obama.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

There are about 300 uncommitted superdelegates in the Democratic Party and they may have the final say over which candidate will be the party's presidential nominee. This past week in a series we call the Backroom Primary, NPR has been talking with a few of these superdelegates about their coming decision.

Today, NPR's Jeff Brady introduces us to Pat Waak. She chairs the Colorado Democratic Party.

JEFF BRADY: On Pat Waak's desk is a file folder of letters and even petitions requesting - and in some cases demanding - that she pick a side in the race for the Democratic nomination. Waak told a breakfast meeting of Democrats north of Denver recently that she's receiving regular calls from big names who support either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

Ms. PAT WAAK (Chair, Colorado Democratic Party): So it is a unending loving attention that I am getting. I have never been so popular in my life. And...

BRADY: Waak says she recently received a call on a Sunday afternoon from Maggie Williams, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, and another from former Representative Pat Schroeder, also a Clinton supporter.

Ms. WAAK: These last few are saying, please remain neutral, you know, which is an interesting strategy they're taking right now. I think that they're sort of wanting people not to do these endorsements that have been coming out but wait to see what the rest of the primaries are.

BRADY: There's been a steady trickle of superdelegates endorsing Obama recently. Waak says she will not join the list of endorsers on either side. There's a little Colorado Democratic Party history behind her position. Four years back, there was a nasty intra-party fight over claims that the previous chair was favoring one Democrat over another in a Senate primary race.

Waak was elected as chair on a promise to not take a position on a race where two Democrats are competing. And there's also the fact that Denver will host the Democrat National Convention this summer.

Ms. WAAK: It's important for me to convince both candidates that they will be treated fairly here in this state when the convention opens up.

BRADY: At some point Pat Waak will have to pick a candidate. Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean has asked delegates to decide by July 1 to avoid a floor fight in Denver. Waak says at least by then all the state's primaries and caucuses will be finished and voters will have expressed their preference before she expresses hers.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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Superdelegates Primer: What You Need to Know

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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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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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