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Superdelegates Hold Key to Election


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Several news agencies have run the numbers. Even if one candidate sweeps every Democratic primary between now and the party convention, neither Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will win the majority of delegates. They need to win the nomination outright increasingly. It looks like that almost 800 superdelegates will determine that winner. Superdelegates are party leaders and local elected officials. They can vote for anyone they want - Clinton, Obama, for that matter, Mike Gravel. Both campaigns are calling, cajoling and trying to convince superdelegates to announce their support.


But Tad Devine, Democratic political consultant who's unhitched to either candidate, is urging superdelegates to hold off. He joins us now from his home.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. TAD DEVINE (Democratic Political Consultant): Nice to be with you.

SIMON: You were there for the birth of superdelegates. Remind us why they were created.

Mr. DEVINE: Well they were created for a number of reasons: One was because after the 1980 campaign. There was really a lack of party leaders and elected officials who participated in that election, particularly at the convention itself. There was also a feeling at the time that the activists who were getting elected as delegates during the '70s and '80s really didn't reflect the mainstream of the Democratic Party and that these elected officials would actually be more representative of the mainstream of the Democratic Party.


And they were also picked so there'd be some mechanism to make sure that there was both a backstop in case someone who was way outside the mainstream was going to be the nominee, or most importantly, and I think most relevant to this circumstance, that there be a way to achieve some closure around a candidate who had emerged from the nominating process with strength, but not enough delegates to achieve the nomination.

SIMON: So, for example, on Thursday, John Lewis, congressman from Georgia and a superdelegate who had endorsed Hillary Clinton, indicated that he probably is going to switch his endorsement to Barack Obama. He can do it legally. Is he doing what you think superdelegates are created to do?

Mr. DEVINE: I think so. I mean, you know, part of the reason that they were established as unpledged delegates and not elected based on the results of primaries and caucuses is they could have the freedom to exercise judgment. And it is a dynamic nominating process. Things change, and I think when someone of the stature of Congressman Lewis or others start talking about the need to coalesce behind a candidate, that has enormous impact. So yes, I think that's precisely what superdelegates were intended to do.

They haven't done that much in the past. Typically when they endorse someone, they would stay with candidate, but this is an unusual year and unusual election, so I'm not surprised to see people speaking out the way he has.

SIMON: Are you concerned, Mr. Devine, about the superdelegates leaving the impression that there's some sort of extralegal body who's really going to determine the nomination despite all the primaries and caucuses?

Mr. DEVINE: I am concerned because, you know, people hadn't focused on this before. We really haven't had the - these unpledged party leader elected official delegates, the so-called superdelegates make a difference in a quarter century, and now in the age of the Internet when everyone's focused on every detail in a race where there's so much interest, I think people may think that this is somehow unfair. And that's why I believe it's incumbent on the superdelegates to wait a little while longer to see if this race reaches a point where it's clear that one of these two very remarkable candidates has emerged and that the party would be best served to fall in ranks behind that candidate.

SIMON: There are reports today that Al Gore and other prominent Democrats are meeting and counseling each other to, in sense, hold their fire and be available to brokers, some kind of negotiation. How does that go over?

Mr. DEVINE: Well, when I saw that I felt that that's precisely what our party leaders should be doing. And, you know, I read in the paper today that the vice president said that he thought this race would reach some kind of tipping point, and I think that's precisely correct. That tipping point could come soon with Ohio and Texas, beginning in March. It may come later with the Pennsylvania primary at the end of April. But I think we will achieve a point and it will be particularly good in that these voters who are coming and turning out in Democratic primaries in record numbers, particularly young people, won't feel that this process has been taken away from them.

SIMON: Democratic political consultant Tad Devine, thanks very much.

Mr. DEVINE: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.