Influential Democrats Waiting to Choose Sides
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008; Page A01
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s trio of victories over Sen. Barack Obama last week appears to have convinced a sizable number of uncommitted Democratic superdelegates to wait until the end of the primaries and caucuses before picking a candidate, according to a survey by The Washington Post.
Many of the 80 uncommitted superdelegates who were contacted over the past several days said they are reluctant to override the clear will of voters. But if Clinton (N.Y.) and Obama (Ill.) are still seen as relatively close in the pledged, or elected, delegate count in June, many said, they will feel free to decide for themselves which of the candidates would make a stronger nominee to run against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the fall.
Obama’s victory in yesterday’s Wyoming caucuses gave him an additional seven delegates, bringing his total to 1,578. Clinton won five delegates, bringing her total to 1,468, according to the Associated Press. Obama had 61 percent of the votes to Clinton’s 38 percent.
At the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August, there will be 796 superdelegates — members of Congress, governors, mayors, and state and national party leaders who have automatic seats — and more than 300 are still uncommitted.
To win the nomination, Obama or Clinton will need a total of 2,025 pledged delegates and superdelegates. That is, unless Michigan‘s and Florida‘s delegations, now barred because the states violated party primary rules, end up being seated at the convention. Then the winning number would be higher, depending on how many delegates the two states are awarded.
Pat Waak, who chairs the Colorado Democratic Party, expressed the view of many uncommitted superdelegates who hope the remaining primaries and caucuses will produce an obvious winner. “My hope is that there’s a clear lead among pledged delegates and the popular vote before we get to the convention, so that the automatic delegates can reflect what’s happening nationally,” she said. “I’m just very hopeful that it’s not up to us.”
But Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury said that if there is no clear leader, he is prepared to exercise his judgment. “If the pledged-delegate total is within 100 votes or whatever, I don’t think there’s a great deal of significance in that,” said Bradbury, who also represents other secretaries of state as a superdelegate.
He added: “I just believe that the determining factor for superdelegates shouldn’t be, ‘Well, 49 percent voted for Hillary and 51 percent voted for Obama, and that decides it for us.’ Sorry, but that’s not how it works.”
By winning in Wyoming, Obama recaptures a little of the momentum he lost when Clinton defeated him in three out of four states last Tuesday. Until then he had reeled off 11 straight victories, pushing Clinton to the verge of defeat.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said that the Wyoming victory speaks to the candidate’s strength in the West and that Obama is better suited to help down-ticket Democrats, even in states that traditionally vote Republican in the general election. “I think it’s evidence that Senator Obama is going to be able to put more states in play because of his strength with independent voters,” Plouffe told the Associated Press.
This Tuesday, Clinton and Obama will square off in Mississippi, with Obama heavily favored. Next on the calendar is Pennsylvania, whose April 22 primary offers the single biggest delegate haul of the remaining contests. The Keystone State tilts toward Clinton at this point.
Party rules allocating delegates on a proportional basis make it virtually certain that Obama will finish the primary season with more pledged delegates than Clinton. But neither he nor his rival can clinch the nomination without the superdelegates.
“I’m thinking of changing my phone number,” joked Doyle, who had supported New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson but is now uncommitted. He said he got a surprise call from Bill Clinton on Super Bowl Sunday while cooking osso buco for his family. Tony Podesta, a Washington lobbyist who is one of Clinton’s top organizers in Pennsylvania, called from Istanbul at midnight recently inviting Doyle to dinner.
Doyle continues to resist the overtures.
The potential power of these superdelegates to decide the race has conjured up fears of party bosses repairing to smoke-filled rooms to pick a nominee, but the reality is far different. These delegates have never met as a group, and the first time they do may be on the floor of the convention, along with more than 4,000 pledged delegates.
The superdelegates are a cross-section of the party, young and old, women and men, of all races and creeds, famous and obscure. They approach the role with more caution than gusto — and they are now among the most closely monitored Americans on the planet, the focus of elaborate courting and tracking inside the Clinton and Obama campaigns.
By one analysis provided to The Post, half of the uncommitted delegates are elected officials, almost a third come from states that have not yet held primaries or caucuses, a third are women, and about a fifth are black or Hispanic. Others say there is no real pattern to who has taken sides and who remains on the fence.
Clinton jumped into an early lead in the superdelegate battle, leveraging her connections and a belief among party regulars early in the process that she was the all-but-inevitable nominee.
When Obama went on his February winning streak, the tide shifted and he began to catch up. He gained new endorsements and converted a few Clinton supporters, most prominently Rep. John Lewis (Ga.). Now, after Clinton’s victories in Texas and Ohio, the two candidates are fiercely competing for the backing of these delegates. But the superdelegates are resisting.
Jenny Greenleaf, a Democratic National Committee member from Oregon, is one of these reluctant powerbrokers who is in no hurry to declare her allegiance. “I’m maybe a little utopian,” she said, “but I would like to wait for the process to play out and hope there will be a clear leader.”
While these delegates might prefer to see the race determined by the results of the primaries and caucuses, many said they do not feel bound to support the candidate who has more pledged delegates, especially if the race is close.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) said the decision to create the superdelegate category assumed they would use their own judgment. “If superdelegates were just intended to automatically vote for the preference someone else expressed, there wouldn’t be any purpose,” he said.
“The dynamics of a general election are very different from either a primary or a caucus,” Salazar said. “The question will become, for my state — and this will be my calculation — how can I best deliver the nine electoral votes from Colorado to the nominee?”
Kohl added another criterion, which he called “perhaps the most important” one: Who would make the best president? “It’s a judgment based on my knowledge of the two candidates,” he said. “It’s an intuitive thing, a feel thing, based on all the things that make Obama who he is and Hillary who she is. It’s mysterious.”
Salazar said waiting until after the primaries makes sense for the superdelegates, but he added that they should sort out the nomination long before the convention. “The sooner it gets resolved, the better,” he said.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.) said that, as a moderate, he sees his role as helping to bring the party together. “The winner of this nomination will be the president,” he said. “When you have that much at stake and you have two historic figures, it’s going to be difficult to unify the party, and I think we’re going to need people in the middle who can bring people together.”
Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Rhine McLin decided to support Obama after he won her county in Tuesday’s primary, following a courtship that included calls from Clinton, her husband, their daughter Chelsea and her campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe, as well as from Obama and his wife, Michelle.
“I think that I made it clear I was supporting the way Dayton and Montgomery County went,” McLin said Friday. Should neither candidate reach the 2,025 delegates needed to secure the nomination before the convention, she said, she hopes that her fellow superdelegates will look closely at who has received the most votes at that point. “I think that popular vote should weigh very heavily in this decision,” she said.
When reached late last week, superdelegate Diane Glasser of Florida offered a seemingly surprising answer when asked what she had heard from the campaigns. “I have heard from a lot of reporters all over this country, but I haven’t heard from either one of those camps,” she said. “That’s the truth. They may be taking me for granted. I’m a white, older woman. They may be assuming I’m obviously going one way. I’ve got neighbors, friends, family trying to convince me, but nobody from the campaigns.”
She may not have long to wait. Because the Florida and Michigan delegations have been stripped of their right to be seated at the convention, the campaigns have avoided calling them. But as interest grows in finding a compromise that would allow both states’ delegates to attend the convention, Glasser can expect the barrage soon.