Sunday, February 10, 2008

Superdelegates: Front and Center

Map from NPI: Key--Counties in blue broke for Barack Obama. The darker the hue, the stronger Obama's support. County names and percentage tiers are marked. The one purple shape (Douglas) in the middle is the only county to back Clinton.

WaPo (page one), "796 Insiders May Hold Democrats' Key":
For months, Patsy Arceneaux sat on the fence as key aides to the presidential campaigns of Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama made gentle but persistent inquiries. Ann Lewis, a close Clinton adviser, called weekly. The 2004 Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), called, urging her to jump behind Obama.
They all wanted to know the same thing: how she planned to vote in her role as a superdelegate at this summer's national convention.

Last week, the Baton Rouge party loyalist, one of 796 Democratic insiders who may well determine the eventual nominee, got the call that finally persuaded her -- from former president Bill Clinton, the man who 10 years earlier gave her husband a job.

"When the president called, I said to him, 'I guess I've moved to the top of the food chain,' " Arceneaux laughed. "He was very persuasive."

The calls were just one aspect of the aggressive campaign underway to win what could be the most important and least understood contest in the race for the Democratic nomination. As a group, the "superdelegates," a category created by party leaders in 1982 to give elected officials more clout in the nominating process, constitute a prize worth twice as much as the state of California.

Though Clinton and Obama have pursued the support of superdelegates for a year, the courtships have intensified in recent weeks as it has become clear that the two are locked in a virtual dead heat for delegate support. Party insiders say this could be the first campaign in more than two decades that reaches the national convention in August without a clear nominee, making the votes of superdelegates -- a group made up of current and former top elected officials and Democratic National Committee (DNC) members from around the nation -- potentially decisive.

"Right now, everyone is busting their chops to try to get the remaining superdelegates to commit. And they're having a real hard time of it," said Mike Berman, a Clinton supporter who worked on Walter F. Mondale's 1984 campaign, the last one in which superdelegates were a factor.

So far, 213 superdelegates have publicly committed to backing Clinton and 139 have pledged their support to Obama, according to a survey by the Associated Press.

The potential for superdelegates to play a critical role has some party leaders worried that the situation could lend the appearance that the nominee will be selected by insiders rather than by rank-and-file voters.

That appearance is not helped by the fact that so many superdelegates have clear allegiances. Bill Clinton, for instance, is a superdelegate by virtue of his tenure as president, as are Clinton campaign chairman Terence R. McAuliffe and longtime Clinton ally Harold Ickes. Though Hillary Clinton has a clear edge, former senator Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), a strong Obama supporter, and Alan Solomont, Obama's Northeast finance chairman, are superdelegates as well.

Some have significant financial ties to the campaigns. The Clinton campaign paid Ickes's company, Catalist, a broker of voter contact lists, more than $125,000 last year. Obama's campaign also paid Ickes's firm, spending $25,000 to rent a mailing list.

A company run by Mark S. Weiner, a Clinton supporter who became a superdelegate by virtue of his party leadership role in Rhode Island, has been paid more than $800,000 for campaign bumper stickers, signs and other paraphernalia.

Both said in interviews that their company contracts will not influence their votes as superdelegates. "We're not in anybody's pocket," Ickes said.

Within the Clinton and Obama campaigns, though, the only concern has been amassing support.

At a recent House Democratic Caucus retreat in Virginia, members who had already committed to a presidential candidate used every spare moment to lobby their colleagues.

"There's a concerted effort in both camps to talk to as many people, as many superdelegates, as possible about your candidate," said Rep. John B. Larson (Conn.), who was originally a supporter of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.).

Larson and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), another former Dodd supporter, officially endorsed Obama on Feb. 2 and joined a growing network of members of Congress who are organizing an outreach effort to line up more superdelegates for him. With Clinton ahead in superdelegate endorsements so far, Obama supporters are making lists of undeclared House and Senate Democrats and setting up meetings to pitch their candidate.

"It will be a door-to-door campaign on my part with my colleagues," DeLauro said, adding that she has set up about a dozen meetings with House Democrats for the weeks ahead. "It will be a formidable operation."

Democratic operatives not affiliated with either campaign consider Clinton's operation in the superdelegate race much more formidable. Rep. John D. Dingell (Mich.), the longest-serving member of the House, never received a call from the Obama campaign, according to a source close to the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman. Last week, Dingell endorsed Clinton.

And some superdelegates can be worth more than others, particularly those who have the ability to bring along others with them.

Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), who endorsed Clinton last year and is viewed as a vice presidential possibility, is trying to lock down the five DNC members from Indiana who are superdelegates on behalf of Clinton, according to a source close to Bayh.

Obama's campaign is working hard to catch up.

While three members of Connecticut's congressional delegation have endorsed Obama, the state has six DNC members who are also superdelegates. Two days after Dodd's campaign flamed out in Iowa, Obama was on the phone, telling Larson about his bid and the high-minded effort to refashion the way campaigns are waged.

"Obama made the best pitch himself. Sometimes seeing is believing," Larson said, recalling that both candidates and Bill Clinton called the weekend after the Iowa caucuses. "I heard from him. I heard from Hillary. I heard from Obama. . . . It's not as if they were beating down the path to me. They were beating down the path to everyone."

The calculation of whom to endorse can be complicated: Superdelegates must think not only about their personal views but also about how their votes will be viewed by constituents, said Ickes, who has chased their support on behalf of candidates since 1988.

"You try to figure out, what factors influence them? Who do they talk to about presidential politics?" Ickes said. "Sometimes, it's two or three close confidants, sometimes it's a chief of staff, or someone who raises money for them. Maybe there's an issue that's important to them."

One adviser helping to oversee Obama's superdelegate efforts said the Clintons entered the contest for support with a significant edge, by virtue of Bill Clinton's ability to get on the phone and "try to call in all the chits that they believe they have."

The Obama adviser thinks those delegates are all spoken for at this point. "They got all of the low-hanging fruit. The ones left are the ones much harder for them to reach," he said, referring to the Clinton campaign.

With more than half of the superdelegates unclaimed, both campaigns remain hard at work. And even those whom they believe are secure could move. Arceneaux, the Baton Rouge delegate whose husband was named by Clinton in the 1990s as head of Sallie Mae, the nation's largest student loan company, said she is well aware of the fact that superdelegates are not firmly bound to a candidate until they stand up at the convention in August.

"I always have the option of changing my mind," she said.
NY Times (page one), "Neck and Neck, Democrats Woo Superdelegates":
Seeing a good possibility that the Democratic presidential nomination will not be settled in the primaries and caucuses, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are lavishing attention on a group that might hold the balance of power: elected officials and party leaders who could decide the outcome at the convention in August.
There are 796 of them, and if neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton emerges from the primary season with the 2,025 delegates necessary to secure the nomination, they will in essence serve as tiebreakers. That is a result both sides see as increasingly likely.

Known as superdelegates because they are free to cast their votes at the convention as they see fit, they are the object of an intensifying and potentially high-stakes charm offensive by the candidates and their supporters.

“We have all been bombarded with e-mails from everybody and their mamas,” said Donna Brazile, a senior member of the Democratic National Committee. “Like, ‘Auntie Donna, you’re a superdelegate!’ My niece called me today to lobby me. I didn’t know what to say.”

Mr. Obama, of Illinois, and Mrs. Clinton, of New York, are setting aside hours each week to call superdelegates, and their campaigns have set up boiler rooms to pursue likely targets.

The Clinton campaign has established a system, overseen by one of the party’s most seasoned behind-the-scenes operators, Harold Ickes, to have superdelegates contacted by carefully chosen friends and local supporters, as well as by big-name figures like Madeleine K. Albright, a former secretary of state. For particularly tough sells, the campaign has former President Bill Clinton or Chelsea Clinton make the call.

Mr. Obama has enlisted Tom Daschle, the popular former Senate majority leader, as well as Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the party’s 2004 presidential nominee.

“You know there is something interesting going on when you pick up your cellphone and see all those out-of-state phone numbers,” said Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who reported getting calls from Ms. Napolitano and Mr. Daschle.

A survey of the superdelegates by The New York Times that was completed a week ago found that 204 had decided to back Mrs. Clinton, 99 backed Mr. Obama and the rest said they were undecided or did not respond. The survey came before the coast-to-coast contests on Tuesday, and the superdelegates can change their minds at any time.

Surveys by other news organizations have shown Mr. Obama in a stronger position, underlining the difficulties facing news organizations — and campaigns — trying to get a firm count from this group of delegates.

The superdelegates include all Democratic governors and members of Congress, as well as officials and other prominent members of the party. In interviews, some said they were grappling with how to use their power if it comes into play, especially if their judgment does not match the will of a majority of voters.

Should they ratify the decision by regular delegates and vote for the candidate who is ahead in June, no matter how small the lead? Are they obligated to follow the vote of their constituents in primaries or caucuses? Or should they simply follow their conscience and vote for whoever they think is the best nominee?

Superdelegates, created in 1982, were intended to restore some of the power over the nomination process to party insiders, tempering the zeal of party activists. About 15 to 20 percent of the delegates at Democratic conventions are superdelegates.

In the close race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, superdelegates overwhelmingly supported Walter F. Mondale, helping to secure his defeat of Gary Hart. This year, the competition is more intense, and the superdelegates’ support more evenly divided.

Mr. Obama, talking to reporters in Seattle on Friday, said he believed superdelegates should follow the will of the voters.

“My strong belief is that if we end up with the most states and the most pledged delegates from the most voters in the country, that it would be problematic for the political insiders to overturn the judgment of the voters,” Mr. Obama said. “I think it is also important for superdelegates to think about who will be in the strongest position to defeat John McCain in November and who will be in the strongest position to ensure that we are broadening the base, bringing people who historically have not gotten involved in politics into the fold.”

Mrs. Clinton, campaigning Saturday in Maine, disputed Mr. Obama’s interpretation of how superdelegates should make their decision, arguing, as her aides have in conversations with superdelegates, that they should make an independent decision based on who they thought would be the strongest candidate and president. She brought up Senators Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts; both men have endorsed Mr. Obama, but Mrs. Clinton won that state on Tuesday.

“Superdelegates are, by design, supposed to exercise independent judgment,” she said at a news conference in Maine, according to MSNBC. “But, of course, if Senator Obama and his campaign continue to push this position, which is really contrary to what the definition of a superdelegate has historically been, I will look forward to receiving the support of Senator Kennedy and Senator Kerry.”

Chris Redfern, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman, said he did not intend to pledge his vote until after all the primaries were completed. “You want to make the convention interesting, don’t you?” Mr. Redfern asked.

He said Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama had sought his support, as a superdelegate and as the head of the Ohio party. Neither offered him any inducements, he said, “not even a T-shirt.”

Democrats, including aides to both candidates and party leaders, said they were concerned about a summer-long fight should the primary voting end in June without a clear winner.

“It is going to be an enormous train wreck unless by June 3 a candidate has a majority,” said Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who supports Mrs. Clinton. “I don’t think we want to go back to those wheeling-dealing, smoke-filled back-room days.”

The prospect that the nomination could be decided by party insiders rather than by the voters has stirred unease among many superdelegates as they weigh potentially conflicting loyalties to their constituents and to Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.

Several legislators said they would stay neutral as long as possible, hoping to be spared a decision. But, they said, they are prepared to step in and try to push the party to a decision as soon as the voting is over.

“Once the primary season is over, I am hoping we will have a nominee,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland. “If those of us who are uncommitted can help bring that about, then I think we should try to do that.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who is neutral, said she would not stay on the sidelines for long once the voting was over. “I will not go through the summer, I can tell you that, without endorsing a candidate,” she said. “I am not a big believer in smoke-filled rooms.”

Aides to Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama said it had been increasingly challenging to lock down supporters as they traded victories in primaries and caucuses.

Under Democratic Party rules for primaries, delegates are allocated proportionately — rather than winner take all — which complicates the candidates’ efforts to build up a big lead.

“The people who were initially inclined to either candidate got on board early,” said Mr. Ickes, a 40-year veteran of Democratic National Committee battles who is running the operation for Mrs. Clinton out of her headquarters in Virginia. “But at this point, it’s getting harder to get people — especially if they now think there is no front-runner.”

Some of Mr. Obama’s supporters signaled they might battle hard to keep any advantage Mrs. Clinton maintained in superdelegates — in part a dividend from the long relationship of the Clintons with the Democratic National Committee and elected officials — from overcoming any advantage Mr. Obama might have in pledged delegates from the primaries and caucuses.

“My personal opinion is it would be a mistake and disastrous either way for the superdelegates — insiders, establishment politicians — to come along and overturn the expressed view of those pledged delegates,” Mr. Kerry said.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said he had not taken sides, partly out of the hope that the fight would not end up on his plate, but also because he needed to work with both candidates in the Senate on health care legislation.

“I want to spend my time doing as much as possible to have this teed up for a Democratic president,” Mr. Wyden said of the health care plan. “That being said, if this goes until the very end, I am going to have to swallow hard and make a judgment.”
Howie P.S.: To give you an idea of the power of yesterday's results, Clinton sympathizer (IMHO) Ben Smith now says, "Obama landslides could break deadlock." "Huge Turnout" photos from The Stranger's blog, SLOG, as well as boatloads of anecdotal words and pictures.



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