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Backroom Primary: Reaching Out to Superdelegates

Sen. Barack Obama received another superdelegate pledge Wednesday, this one from Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal. That brings the overall pledged delegate count to 1,632 for Obama, 1,500 for Sen. Hillary Clinton. Clinton maintains a lead among superdelegates, but it has been narrowing since Feb. 5.

Since neither candidate is expected to win enough pledged delegates to clinch the Democratic Party nomination, the votes of the superdelegates — elected officials and party activists who are not bound to any candidate by primary vote — are crucial.

There are polls and surveys to measure almost everything, but not the anxiety level of Democratic leaders who fear that every day their bitter primary battle drags on it weakens the eventual nominee in a general election that should be theirs to lose. But superdelegate Debra Kozikowski of Massachusetts says she needs the race to go on longer to help her make up her mind.

"We have a tough pragmatic fighter on the one side," she says. "We have an inspirational, dedicated leader on the other. And who's to say which one is the best candidate? For somebody like me, it has to be the preponderance of the evidence of who has the best opportunity to win in November and that evidence has yet to be completed."

There are 10 remaining primaries, and shortly after the last ones on June 3, the remaining superdelegates are expected to make up their minds so that the race doesn't go on to the Democratic National Convention in August. Until then, the supers are listening to the arguments of both campaigns. Obama's is simple — he's won more delegates, more states and more popular votes.

David McDonald, an uncommitted superdelegate from Washington, says Obama "scrambles the electoral map in a different way because of what's going on in the states that are becoming important to the Democratic Party for the first time in say 30 or 40 years. The increased interest in those states [make it likely it] will propel candidates down the ticket into being into competitive races."

Clinton argues that the big swing states she's won — like Florida and Ohio — have historically been more important to Democrats in general elections, and that her voters — working-class whites and Hispanics — are less likely to vote for Obama in a general election. As long as she's trailing Obama in pledged delegates and the popular vote, it's a hard argument to make.

But Bill Galston, a former Clinton White House aide, says it will become easier if she can do really well in the remaining contests.

"Consider the following scenario: If she wins by double digits in Pennsylvania, she will narrow the gap in pledged delegates to the point where I think at the end of the process, a lot of people are going say out of 3,200-and-some-odd pledged delegates there's a gap of 50," Galston says. "This is the moral equivalent of a tie."

But after a long and increasingly bitter primary fight, there are other considerations, says Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and uncommitted superdelegate.

"I think superdelegates would like to make sure at the end of the day that we're not only electing the best president, but we're also working to unify the party."

But what if it's hard to figure out how to unify the party and pick the strongest candidate at the same time? There are superdelegates who think Clinton is a tougher, stronger candidate for the general election. But if she doesn't sweep the remaining primaries, they worry that giving her the nomination could alienate the future of the party — African Americans and all those young voters Obama's brought in — the most reliable voters the Democrats have.

It's an excruciating decision for many of them, but the dirty little secret, says Brazile, is that plenty of the "uncommitted" superdelegates have actually made up their minds.

"I have a sneaking suspicion," Brazile says, "that we know exactly which one we're for, although we've decided to remain neutral as a matter of duty to the party — to keep the party together. There will not be a sign from heaven. There will have to be a sign based on our own conscience, in terms of which candidate we want to send out there this fall."

The superdelegates may know which way they will go, but the rest of us will have to wait till the end of June to find out how this extraordinary primary battle will end.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.