LIANE HANSEN, host:
In this country former President Bill Clinton is in San Jose at the California Democratic Convention today. He's there to seek support for his wife's presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton already won the California primary in February but some two dozen delegates remain uncommitted. These are the superdelegates, and they are part of a national group who automatically attend the party's nominating convention.
With the race to top the Democratic presidential ticket between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton so close their votes will determine the winner. NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving is with us. Hi, Ron.
RON ELVING: Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: Grand total - how many superdelegates are there and what's their role?
ELVING: There are just under 800 superdelegates at this point. The number fluctuates just a little bit. And they've been around for 30 years, ever since the party got the conviction that they had gone too far in making their process too democratic, too egalitarian and letting all of the delegates be selected through the primaries and caucuses. They wanted to get the office holders back in there.
And at first there were just a few hundred of these but now it's grown to be a fifth of the overall total, and the superdelegates are a major force, are now a pivotal force in the process.
HANSEN: You said office holders. Who exactly are these superdelegates and how do they cast their votes?
ELVING: First of all, you've got every Democratic governor, you've got every Democratic senator, you've got every Democratic member of Congress and then you've got all of the Democratic National Committee. That's about half the superdelegates just on the Democratic National Committee. You also throw in former presidents and presidential nominees - and there are six living Democratic nominees for president. You also have some other statewide officers, state party chairs, a few former state party chairs and about 100 other people who get chosen as what they call add-ons at some of the state party conventions, such as what's going on in California today.
HANSEN: Now, so how do they vote?
ELVING: Well, they vote just about like regular delegates. You know, they just sort of blend in with the rest of the state delegations. They're on the floor when they're actually taking that dramatic roll call vote on Wednesday night and actually casting their votes.
But right now they're not being counted in the totals for each state because they're all still free agents. So we have a pledged delegate total that shows Barack Obama ahead by about 160 or a few less than that. And then if you add in the commitments that have been stated by superdelegates, that reduces his lead by about 30 to 35.
So they're a little bit different at this point. But when they actually get to the floor in August in Denver they're going to vote just like other delegates.
HANSEN: All right. Because of their role this year there are critics who say that, you know, having a bunch of politicians and party officials deciding the nominees is actually a blow to the democratic process because it might turn off voters in the general election in November. What do you think?
ELVING: It's a risk. It's a risk you take any time you have automatic delegates - people who are delegates by virtue of their office rather than being tied to a primary or a caucus. And especially, of course, if the superdelegate result is different from the pledged delegate result. That's where you're going to have the supporters of whichever candidate does not win feeling as though in some sense or another they've been robbed.
But here's a question: should a superdelegate follow the pledged delegate results nationally or the results from that particular superdelegate state. Which would be the more democratic behavior?
HANSEN: Behavior - since Super Tuesday, Senator Hillary Clinton's lead in superdelegates narrowed. She had more than a hundred then she went to fewer than 40. And her campaign says that the regular pledged delegates you're talking about they're free to change their minds legally. Is that true?
ELVING: Yes, legally speaking, and that's why the Clinton people have started referring to so-called pledged delegates. If one of them or two of them or some of them were to change their minds, they could still vote and their votes would still count. But you have to bear in mind that the people who are pledged delegates weren't just assigned to a candidate, they stood for election as delegates for one candidate or the other. They're pledged and committed from the outset and defections are pretty rare.
HANSEN: Okay. Yes or no: what about having all the superdelegates get together after the primaries in June to have a big superdelegates primary to settle this thing?
ELVING: It would save a lot of money and it would save a lot of blood and it would probably be very pleasing to the Democratic national officials. But it would also be preempting the role of the convention itself and one of the two candidates is probably not going to be very excited about it by the time we get to June. So I wouldn't count on that happening although it's a lovely idea.
HANSEN: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And in the days ahead NPR will be reporting on superdelegates in a series called the Backroom Primary. And we'll listen for that series. Thanks, Ron.
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