Obama or Clinton: Will Party Elite or Voters Decide?

Democratic rivals woo party elite in contest that could go the distance.


Feb. 8, 2008 — -- With Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama digging in their heels in an entrenched battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, some Democrats worry that the fight could carry all the way to the party's national convention in August in Denver.

That's led to an uproar by some about the role of the 796 Democratic "super delegates" -- state party leaders, national party leaders and former Democratic presidents -- who get to act as free agents at the party's convention able to back any candidate they wish.

"If 795 of my colleagues decide this election, I will quit the Democratic Party. I feel very strongly about this," Donna Brazile told CNN this week.

Brazile, who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, is herself a super delegate.

The prospect of the Democratic presidential nomination being decided by super delegates has also raised the ire of left-wing bloggers, who have suggested it would not be democratic to have party leaders decide between Obama and Clinton.

"This is a complete disaster," blogged Chris Bowers this week on his Open Left website.

"It will shine light on complicated bylaws, and the questionable democratic nature of the delegate selection process instead of on voters. Fascinating as it might be for political junkies, it is not the kind of image Democrats need," Bowers wrote.

Other liberal pundits are piling on against what they call the "tyranny" of the Democratic Party's super delegates.

"Strengthen our democracy by reforming the super-delegate system so that the people, not the party establishment, choose their candidate," blogged Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation.

The firestorm over the role of super delegates may be premature.

This week, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said that if there is no nominee selected by mid-March or April, or by the last presidential primary on the Democratic calendar in June, the party would likely bring both sides together to work out a deal.

"I don't think we can afford to have a brokered convention," Dean told NY1 this week. "That would not be good news for either party."

Not taking any chances, the Obama and Clinton campaigns have been actively wooing super delegates.

A Clinton campaign official told ABC News' Kate Snow that even Chelsea Clinton has been making calls to super delegates when she's in the car between stops at campaign events.

Democratic super delegate Vince Powers, an attorney and party official in Lincoln, Neb., originally endorsed former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, but got a call from former president Bill Clinton minutes before Edwards delivered his official farewell speech last Wednesday.

Powers told ABC News' Michael Elmore that he told Bill Clinton he wouldn't be endorsing another candidate unless they personally visited Nebraska.

"We're not asking for much. We don't get much help from the national party," Powers told ABC News. "We are starved out here. I want a generation that says they remember when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigned out here."

Obama visited Nebraska this week, and now Powers is supporting him.

Of the almost 800 super delegates, less than half have decided whom they will support at the convention; the rest are sitting on the fence, according to ongoing calls by ABC News to the super delegates.

Of the 400 super delegates who have committed, Clinton is leading, with the support of 213 super delegates; 142 are committed to Obama, according to the latest ABC News survey.


This week Obama warned super delegates to vote the way their states have voted.

"If this contest comes down to super delegates, we are going to be able to say we have more pledged delegates, which means the Democratic voters have spoken. Those super delegates, those party insiders would have to think long and hard how they would approach the nomination," Obama told reporters this week.

Despite the assertions by liberal bloggers that super delegates are contrary to the principles of the Democratic Party, the party decided more than three decades ago that party leaders and former Democratic politicians should become the ultimate deciders in a tight race.

Super delegates were created to essentially blunt any party outsider who built up a head of steam in the primaries.

After the insurgent outsider campaigns of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter won the Democratic party nominations in 1972 and 1976, many party officials felt the need to have a greater role in the process.

Democratic National Committee press secretary Stacie Paxton said super delegates play an important role in the party's nomination process.

"Unpledged delegates, aka super delegates -- about 19 percent of the delegates to the Democratic convention -- represent a range of people from party activists to elected officials to rank and file Democrats who are active in grassroots politics," Paxton argued.

"Unpledged delegates are elected and entrusted by voters to represent their states," she said.

Former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., who lost his 1984 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination to Vice President Walter Mondale, blames super delegates for scuttling his bid.

"In 1984, I was roughly the equivalent of the Obama candidate. I was the new figure, the new face," Hart said in an interview with ABC News. "The super delegates in that contest did make the difference. I wanted their support, and I didn't get it."

Hart said Clinton could have a legitimacy problem if the super delegates swing her way, as they did in 1984 for Mondale.

"What they should do … unlike my year, they should keep an open mind to see how until the end of the caucus and primary process, which goes at least till May, and then make their mind up after that, after speaking to both candidates and deciding which one would be more electable and run the stronger race in the fall," Hart said.

But Hart, who is now a professor at the University of Colorado, has accepted the role super delegates have been given in the party.

"Many have put their lives into the party, and building the party, or running for office and holding office so they feel that they have some claim on participation, and I think that, to a point, is fair," he said.

"It's not quite pure democracy but it's one of the accommodations that institutions make."

ABC News' David Chalian, Kate Snow, Jake Tapper, Rick Klein, Karen Travers, Michael Elmore, Talal Alkhatib and Jackie Klingebiel contributed to this report.

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