At least once a week, each superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention gets a special phone call. It might be from Hillary or Bill Clinton. It might be from their daughter, Chelsea, or campaign honcho Harold Ickes, or some other big shot from Hillaryland. But someone will call. In fact, six staffers are assigned to make sure the contacts are made and to keep track of the delegates' mood swings. "You walk a fine line," Ickes says. "You don't want to be a pest, but on the other hand you don't want them to think you're ignoring them."
It's all part of the growing effort to court the most prized constituency of the 2008 campaign right now—the about 800 superdelegates who make up some 20 percent of the total number of votes at the convention and could, in the end, decide the outcome. Around 300 remain undecided or haven't yet announced their choice in the presidential race, but even the committed are perfectly capable of changing their minds, so they are being courted, too.
Barack Obama's campaign also is undertaking an aggressive effort to woo the "supers," although it doesn't appear to be as methodical as Clinton's. "We remain in contact with the superdelegates and make sure they get information about the campaign and what the candidate is up to," says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "Ultimately, we are in contact with the superdelegates at many levels." He declined to describe the details, fearing he might give away some tactical information to the opposition. But the latest dust-up on the campaign trail threatens to undermine any progress Obama's campaign has made. Obama's attempt to distance himself from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, highlights again his connections to a clergyman who is widely seen as anti-American and antiwhite. If he loses the Indiana and North Carolina primaries because of this controversy, it could irreparably harm Obama's ability to court the superdelegates and conceivably cost him the nomination.
But neither side's hunt for the remaining superdelegates has paid off in a big way. That's because many of their quarry seem intent on waiting to see which way the wind is blowing in the final primaries and holding off making their decisions until June, when the nominating contests are over. That's the approach advocated by increasing numbers of party satraps, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who is urging all delegates to choose sides by July 1 to avoid a messy brokered convention in August.
The worst scenario for the Democrats is that the superdelegates procrastinate until the convention opens in Denver August 25 and both Obama and Clinton are drawn into a last-minute demolition derby. The ego factor will be enormous, since many of the superdelegates are important figures in their own right, ranging from former Presidents Clinton and Carter to virtually all the Democratic governors, members of Congress, state party chairmen, and big donors. None of them want to be told what to do or appear to be knuckling under to pressure.
How will the superdelegates make their decisions? About one third say the most important factor will be which candidate has the best chance of capturing the White House, according to a recent survey of superdelegates by the Associated Press. "I think it's really important that we keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is the win in November," says Gail Rasmussen, a DNC member and an undecided superdelegate from Oregon.
One in 10 says the biggest factor will be nominating the candidate with the most pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses. "I would favor the people making the decision rather than insiders and party bosses," says Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma. Boren, who is undecided, disagreed with the suggestion of Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and other party leaders that the superdelegates hold their own convention in June to make an endorsement. That prospect appears unlikely, since it seems too close to the bad days of smoke-filled rooms and boss politics.
And another 10 percent of superdelegates say they would go with the candidate who won their state or congressional district. The rest of the delegates weren't definitive in explaining how they would vote, or they declined to answer.
The reason the superdelegates are so important is that neither Obama nor Clinton has been able to lock up the nomination (as has John McCain on the Republican side). Before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, Clinton led among superdelegates 263 to 244, according to the AP. After the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, both candidates scrambled for support from superdelegates. Clinton got the coveted endorsement of North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, helping to increase her total. Despite the endorsement, Clinton's superdelegate lead has dwindled, and Obama has the most delegates overall, 1,732.5 to 1,597.5. It will be next to impossible for Clinton to catch up without getting the superdelegates to support her. In fact, neither candidate is expected to reach a majority without the superdelegates.
After Indiana's and North Carolina's primaries on May 6, the next are in West Virginia May 13, Kentucky and Oregon May 20, Puerto Rico June 1, and Montana and South Dakota June 3. It's very likely that neither candidate will roll up a big string of wins. Indiana is a tossup. Obama is favored in North Carolina, Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota, while Clinton is expected to win West Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico.
While Clinton has enjoyed what she called a surge in contributions and pledges of up to $10 million in the 24 hours after her Pennsylvania win, her campaign remains in debt. Obama already has millions of dollars available for the next round of contests, and the money keeps pouring in. Clearly, Obama has an advantage in the money war.
Beyond that, Obama and his surrogates argue not only that he has the most delegates but that he has also won the most states, territories, and the District of Columbia. And with nine contests remaining, Clinton cannot surpass him in the number of states won. Obama also tells superdelegates that he has a half-million-vote lead in the popular vote, at least in contests approved by the national party.
Obama says he is best positioned to attract new voters, young people, independents, affluent suburbanites, and African-Americans and to capitalize on growing anti-Washington sentiments in the electorate and an overwhelming desire for change and reconciliation. He also says he can carry states that haven't been in play for the Democrats in recent years, such as Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Clinton is using a variety of arguments in courting the superdelegates. First of all, she says that if Florida and Michigan are counted, she is actually ahead in the popular vote because she won both states. The problem is that the two states held their primaries too early, in violation of DNC rules, and the candidates boycotted them at the DNC's request. The DNC also disqualified all their delegates. Clinton now wants the results counted. Obama says that's unfair, since the candidates agreed not to campaign there. The party hasn't found a way to resolve the dispute.
Clinton, hoping to stir up "buyer's remorse," says Obama is only now showing his vulnerabilities as the media finally scrutinize him. Clinton says "the tide is turning" and Obama has shown that he can't win the big swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania; that he is unpopular among white working-class voters who will be crucial in the swing states; that the states where he is strongest won't generate as many electoral votes as the states where Clinton is strongest. Clinton also argues that Obama can't stand up to the "Republican attack machine," which Clinton has overcome before, and that her background is well known, while Obama's past is still unclear.
The superdelegate system that is so controversial today was devised in 1982 by the Commission on Presidential Nominations, a special DNC panel chaired by then North Carolina Gov. James Hunt. At the time, the party was trying to limit the impact of primaries after George McGovern, backed by a cadre of ideological activists, used the direct democracy of those contests to win the nomination in 1972 and Jimmy Carter did the same to win renomination in 1980. Both were demolished in the general election, McGovern by Richard Nixon and Carter by Ronald Reagan.
The superdelegates were created to give automatic voting power to members of the party establishment who would cast their ballots independently, without being tied to the results of primaries and caucuses. They were empowered to choose the best candidate and not be swayed by the moods and passions of the moment or organized factions that could dominate the primaries.
What has caused so many complications this year is the extremely close race waged by Obama and Clinton. Their support is based in almost equal measure on competing mainstream forces within the party—such as advocates of change who back Obama and backers of party traditions who support Clinton. These are not the reckless left-wing firebrands or ideological factions that the party leaders feared in 1982. Another complication has been the proportional system for awarding delegates, rather than the Republicans' winner-take-all approach. This guarantees that even the loser of a primary will receive enough delegates to keep the race alive and prolong the fight.
In the end, if the superdelegates make the final choice of a nominee, they will inevitably disappoint and anger the losing side, which amounts to half the party. And that doesn't sound like a winning formula for the general election.