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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In the presidential race, there's the popular vote and then there's the delegate count. And numerically, the two don't always match up as we saw in the Nevada caucuses where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but Barack Obama ended up with 13 delegates to her 12. Each state has its own often arcane rules for how delegates are awarded. In a close race, that can lead to endless confusion and speculation about who is truly ahead.

We're going to decipher the delegate rules with Burdett Loomis. He is professor of political science at the University of Kansas. He joins us from Lawrence.

And Professor Loomis, we should say of this right from the start that this is complicated even for someone like you who follows this stuff all the time.

Professor BURDETT LOOMIS (Political Science, University of Kansas): Absolutely. And it is arcane and I think is something of a changing target certainly from election to election.

BLOCK: Well, let's start at the beginning. We're talking about delegates. And this would be delegates who go to the parties' national conventions this summer, although it's not quite as simple as all that because in a couple of places where they're having caucuses, they're nominated to county conventions, not national conventions.

Prof. LOOMIS: Right. And you aggregate up to this - the state level so it can be unclear, particularly, as candidates drop out, someone who might have had support, those supporters would go some place else. So it's never completely clear.

BLOCK: Well, are these delegates pledged to a candidate? I mean, once they say or they're pledged to say Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, is that binding?

Prof. LOOMIS: Indeed, they are pledged, and yet, it is not totally binding. No. These are private organizations, the political parties. So legally binding would be difficult. By and large, the party rules say that if you have been elected or selected, pledged to a delegate, you are expected to support that candidate. And if someone drops out, however, you can move your vote.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. But if the candidates stay in, you're supposed to stay with whom you signed on with?

Prof. LOOMIS: You're supposed to.

BLOCK: Another way that this all gets confusing is that in these states, it's not necessarily winner-take-all, or that sometimes delegates are allotted proportionally and that's what happened in Nevada where we saw that split between the popular vote and then a different delegate count.

Prof. LOOMIS: Certainly. And I think that that's the Democratic rule is to select proportionately in caucuses, in primaries. In Nevada, what was interesting is that Hillary Clinton won substantial numbers of votes in particular caucuses. But Obama had support more broadly through the state. And so hence, his support ended up with a little more delegate count as opposed to Clinton.

BLOCK: Another layer of complication here is something called the super delegates. Tell us about super delegates. Who are they?

Prof. LOOMIS: The super delegates are mostly in the Democratic Party. And the name, I think applies to them only in the Democratic Party. They are governors, elected officials, members of Congress, senators, national party members and a few others who have been accorded the status of getting to go to the convention and at the beginning, they're uncommitted. And they can commit to individual candidates anywhere along the way.

BLOCK: And there are lots of these. It is about 20 percent of all the Democratic delegates are super delegates.

Prof. LOOMIS: Right. About 20 percent of the delegates do represent party elites in one way or another.

BLOCK: You know, I was looking at the Web site realclear.politics.com today and they have a running delegate count.

Prof. LOOMIS: Right.

BLOCK: And if you look at the totals with the super delegates totaled in, Hillary Clinton has a big lead. She has 236 delegates total. Barack Obama has a 152. John Edwards has 50. But if you take away those super delegates, it's a very different story. Barack Obama actually has 38; Clinton behind him with 36; John Edwards with 18.

So which number is more meaningful?

Prof. LOOMIS: That's a great question, I should say. I think that both numbers are meaningful. Certainly, the electoral count demonstrates how close this race is. I do think that the super delegate count is also quite significant. Clearly, a lot of people have long term ties to Hillary Clinton. She has a strong super delegate operation. She has gotten those commitments. And so there is this delegate lead. And I think that's important as you go to Super Tuesday because if you can maintain that and broaden her electoral lead, she might have some kind of broad momentum that would carry her, perhaps, to the nomination.

BLOCK: You know, what if we come out of Super Tuesday with just a jumble? What do you see happening then?

Prof. LOOMIS: With a jumble, I think that it then goes into a kind of trench warfare, state by state and super delegate by super delegate. And there are a lot of super delegates who have held back. Most of them, as a matter of fact, have not committed to one candidate or another. And many of those folks have very different interests in the political candidates themselves - individual members of Congress in a tough race, for example. So they may have very good reasons for holding back and waiting to see which way the tide will turn.

BLOCK: Well, Professor Loomis, thanks for taking the time to try to sort through all of this with us.

Prof. LOOMIS: I hope it's slightly more clear.

BLOCK: It is. Thanks a lot.

Prof. LOOMIS: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Burdett Loomis is professor of political science at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

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