Role of ‘super delegates’ debated

Times Staff Writers

With victories Tuesday in three more elections, Barack Obama has now won 23 of the 35 sanctioned Democratic primaries and caucuses so far. But he has not yet solved his problem with Mannie Rodriguez.

Rodriguez supports Hillary Rodham Clinton -- and his vote matters more than most. He is a “super delegate,” one of the 796 Democratic Party insiders who will break the tie if neither Obama nor Clinton emerges from the primary balloting with a clear victory, a strong possibility even after Obama’s wins Tuesday.

Obama’s task Tuesday was not only to carry Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. -- which he did in dominating fashion -- but to win the argument now emerging among the super delegates over whether and how to use their strength.


And that contest is far from producing a winner.

Rodriguez, a party official from Colorado, reserves the right to back Clinton, no matter that Colorado and a majority of other states have so far chosen Obama.

“I do not go with the candidate who is always winning. I go with the candidate I believe in,” he wrote recently to a voter who asked how he could side against the Democratic voters in his own state.

Dan Parker, chairman of the state party in Indiana and a super delegate, feels just as strongly -- even though his state will not vote until May.

“I have made my decision, and I am supporting Sen. Clinton, and that is not going to change,” Parker said.

Even as the primary schedule rolls on -- Wisconsin and Hawaii vote next Tuesday -- the campaigns are devoting a huge amount of energy to gaining the upper hand in the private conversation among the super delegates, most of whom are members of Congress or party officials.

Clinton has won pledges from just over 200 super delegates so far, and Obama from about 150, according to unscientific media tallies. The super delegates can change their allegiance at any time.

In a breakthrough for Obama, his victories Tuesday pushed him ahead for the first time in the race for delegates overall, according to an Associated Press tally.

Obama is certain to use his victories in Tuesday’s so-called Potomac primaries to try to change the minds of super delegates such as Parker and Rodriguez by building the case that the party’s elite insiders would set off angry protests if they overturned the will of the voters.

The strength of Obama’s winning coalition Tuesday could help him in that effort.

In Virginia, for example, which many had considered Clinton’s best shot at an upset, Obama won 90% of the black vote and 52% of the white vote, according to exit polls cited by the Associated Press.

He also won in Virginia among women, Latinos and lower-income voters -- constituencies that have been key for Clinton.

That counts as a significant achievement for Obama, who had built many of his prior victories with a much smaller share of white and female voters.

Some super delegates are already saying that the party insiders should be wary of overturning the collective decision of rank-and-file Democratic voters.

“My one vote shouldn’t matter more than a voter who stood in a long line in the rain in St. Louis to vote,” said Donna Brazile, a party strategist and super delegate who has threatened to quit her post with the Democratic National Committee if super delegates decide the race.

At the same time, the Tuesday results will only add fuel to a debate over how to measure whether Obama or Clinton is leading in the primary balloting.

In the absence of a clear-cut winner, complex rules mean there are several ways to determine who is ahead.

To win the nomination, a candidate has to win a majority of the more than 4,000 delegates who will convene at the party’s nominating convention in Denver this summer.

Both campaigns have already acknowledged that, when all the primary and caucus voting ends in June, neither Clinton nor Obama is likely to have enough delegates to clinch the nomination.

In that case, victory would have to come from the votes of super delegates.

With his decisive wins Tuesday, Obama moves closer to building a large lead in one measure of success: the number of so-called “pledged delegates.”

These are the delegates who are selected according to the vote in each state.

Aides to Obama said he had emerged from the races in Maryland, Virginia and Washington with so many of these delegates that Clinton would not catch up unless she won overwhelming victories in the March 4 contests in Texas and Ohio, and in Pennsylvania in April, the next large, delegate-rich states considered favorable ground for her.

And the Obama camp has said that whoever has the most pledged delegates will be the nominee, signaling that they will apply enormous public pressure to the super delegates to fall in line.

Some super delegates are backing the Obama campaign’s claim that the party insiders should throw their support to whoever wins the most pledged delegates.

“The super delegates will vote for whoever is in the lead” among pledged delegates, said Colorado restaurateur Debbie Marquez, a super delegate who backs Obama.

The Clinton campaign has focused instead on the overall delegate count, a consequence of its lead among the super delegates. Tuesday’s results make that argument even harder for the Clinton campaign, now that Obama has surpassed her in the overall count.

Other Clinton allies are saying that super delegates should look to another measure: whoever has won the popular vote.

Because many of Obama’s victories have come in states that hold nominating caucuses, which draw a far smaller number of participants than do primary elections, Obama could emerge from the primary season with the most delegates, but Clinton could emerge as the leader in the popular vote.

“Just because you have more pledged delegates doesn’t mean you’ve won more votes,” said Parker, the Indiana chairman.

California’s Democratic Party chairman, Art Torres, said Tuesday that he remained an uncommitted super delegate. But he predicted that he and his cohorts would have to consider the ramifications of siding against their local constituencies.

“Woe to the person who goes against the political will for their own selfish interests,” Torres said.

Some insiders, eager to avoid a showdown over the super delegates’ role, expect that pressure will mount on Clinton to concede if she does not win in Ohio and Texas next month and in Pennsylvania in April.

“If they lose Ohio, Texas or Pennsylvania, or all three, then I think that would really create a great deal of pressure on Hillary Clinton to try to take a step toward unifying the party,” said Leon Panetta, a Clinton supporter who was chief of staff in former President Bill Clinton’s White House.

But, he added, the people running Clinton’s campaign will be loath to pull out.

“They’re going to do everything possible to play this out to the convention,” Panetta said.