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How Important Are Superdelegates?
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How Important Are Superdelegates?

Election 2008


This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I am Alex Chadwick with more now on the presidential campaign. Americans are talking about hot issues like race and gender, as we just heard, and the war and the economy and health care and education. But in the Democratic Party, the contest remains so close. It looks as though this decision is going to go to the 800 so-called superdelegates. These are the officials and activists who automatically get a vote at the convention, and the battle for their votes has become the big fight for Democratic rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. This week NPR News is examining the superdelegate phenomenon in a series of stories called the Backroom Primary. And joining us now is NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving. Ron, don't we still have 10 actual voting events to go with millions of voters in them? They are not in the back room.

RON ELVING: No, they are not, and they are also not going to decide this nomination. 10 states is a lot. We were including, actually, a couple of non-states, Guam and Puerto Rico, in that number of 10. But they are not going to be able to deliver a knockout blow because they're primaries, and in primaries, the vote is distributed between the two candidates. And until or unless someone just wins an overwhelming victory, the delegate count goes almost equally to the two candidates. So it's not possible within any reasonable scenario for Hillary Clinton to catch up to Barack Obama's delegate lead.

CHADWICK: And there is still a lot of caucus states that are apportioning their delegates, figuring out who gets what, and in local and state conventions like Texas over the weekend.

ELVING: Yes, and in Texas, it was really quite a wild show over the weekend with lots of rancor and lots of shouting matches back and forth between supporters of the two candidates as they went to the next level of determining how many delegates were going to go to their state convention in June. Most of the states don't have anything quite that dramatic, but we are still determining who some of the delegates are going to be. But all of this, again, is bargaining at the margin, and it might, in fact, come out ahead for Barack Obama. He may actually be gaining more from these caucus states, even though he already has a dominating position in the caucus states. So that's not going to really enable Hillary Clinton to overcome that lead, either.

CHADWICK: But it also in not going to allow Senator Obama to get to the actual number of votes that you need at the convention, so it does come to the superdelegates.

ELVING: Yes, it does. There's just no other big payoff available, and the superdelegate pot is huge. What's more, they're still largely uncommitted. You've got 257 people out there who haven't said anything about which way they are planning to go. That's more than have declared for Hillary Clinton, and it's even more than have declared for Barack Obama, so there is still a lot to be gained there. Also, they have the option of changing their mind. So even the ones who have said which way they want to go, which is a little bit of a majority among the superdelegates, even those can still shift back. We've seen one or two already do it, and more could easily do it. They are a kind of a balancing act for all the results of the primaries and caucuses.

CHADWICK: Well, what about all these calls for them to go ahead and decide before the convention? A lot of voices.

ELVING: Yes. A leading voice among them being the governor of Tennessee, Phil Bredesen, and it's a good idea on some level to say, hey, let's not wait all the way to the last week of August, and have a lot more money spent on this rivalry and a lot more blood and angst over the thing. Let's just get it resolved. Why not get them all together in June, after the primaries and caucuses are over, maybe at some big meeting of the Democratic National Committee, and have a vote and get it done? Very attractive idea, but what it does is, it preempts the convention itself, and it also does not legally bind them to the convention. They could vote one way in June and then possibly vote a different way in August, so you still have to persuade one of the two candidates to literally drop out of the race, or you haven't accomplished anything.

CHADWICK: NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving with us from Washington. Again, Ron, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex.

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