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In Tight Democratic Race, Could Campaign Donations and Personal Views Influence Potentially Decisive Superdelegate Vote?

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With neither Democratic presidential candidate expected to win the 2,025 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, it’s all coming down to superdelegates, the nearly 800 former elected officeholders and party officials who are technically free to choose who they like. While Obama leads in the overall delegate count and among pledged delegates, Clinton has more superdelegate support. About 300 of the 795 superdelegates have yet to take sides. And both campaigns are in a heated battle to win their support. In fact, many of the superdelegates have already been plied with campaign contributions by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, according to a new study by the Center for Responsive Politics. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is shaping up to be one of the closest in history, as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton remain locked in a virtual tie. Upcoming nominating contests this week include Wisconsin, Washington State and Hawaii, and all eyes are looking to March 4th, when the delegate-rich states Texas and Ohio hold their primaries. But neither candidate is expected to win the 2,025 delegates that are needed to clinch the nomination before the end of the voting season. And it’s all coming down to superdelegates, the nearly 800 former elected officeholders and party officials who are technically free to choose whichever candidate they like.

While Obama leads in the overall delegate count and among pledged delegates, Clinton has more superdelegates supporting her. According to an analysis by the New York Times, about 300 of the 795 superdelegates have yet to take sides. And both campaigns are in a heated battle to win their support. In fact, many of the superdelegates have already been plied with campaign contributions by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, this according to a new study by the Center for Responsive Politics.

For more I am joined in Washington, D.C. by Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. Rob Richie is also with us. He is the executive director of FairVote.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Massie Ritsch, let’s begin with you. Explain the money trail.

MASSIE RITSCH: Well, what we did, Amy, was look back to 2005 and the 2006 election cycle and take a look the contributions that Clinton and Obama have made to the superdelegates, who are also elected officials themselves and have reelection campaigns, election campaigns that they have to raise money for. And what we’ve found is that, since then, Clinton and Obama have have contributed about $900,000 to these superdelegates. And then we’ve also found an interesting correlation, that you could predict with about 80 percent certainty which candidate these superdelegates would endorse, based on how much money they’ve gotten in campaign contributions from them.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. Can you explain why are the candidates giving these delegates money?

MASSIE RITSCH: Well, I think what they were doing was giving other Democrats money. I don’t think they were thinking of them as superdelegates at the time, because we’re talking about the last election cycle, for the most part. But that’s what politicians do to get each other elected and reelected. I mean, it’s one way that you build relationships and introduce yourself to the rest of the team. You’re expected to support each other. And when you have money in your campaign coffers and someone else is in need of money in theirs, there’s often a transfer, a contribution made to help them out. And then the expectation is that the favor will be repaid somehow down the road.

AMY GOODMAN: And just be clear who the superdelegates are, they’re all current members of Congress?

MASSIE RITSCH: Well, they’re not all current members of Congress, but the ones that we were looking at were the elected officials: current members of Congress who are Democrats, state governors. And then, the rest of the superdelegates are party officials.

AMY GOODMAN: Senators?


AMY GOODMAN: Senators, as well?

MASSIE RITSCH: Well, yes, senators and House members. But then there are party officials who just might be the, you know, chair of the state Democratic Party in Nebraska or something like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Has money been given since the last election to these superdelegates?

MASSIE RITSCH: You mean in the year 2007?

AMY GOODMAN: In 2007 and 2008.

MASSIE RITSCH: Or 2008. Yes, there has been some money, but when a presidential candidate officially announces that they’re running for president, then they generally have to make their political action committee, where a lot of this money comes from, go dormant. So the money was really mostly in 2005 and 2006. We found that Barack Obama, in total, gave far more of it than Hillary Clinton. His total was close to $700,000 to the superdelegates. Hers was about $200,000 to them.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many people did each give the money to?

MASSIE RITSCH: The total was a bit over a hundred, and about half of them have already endorsed. Obama was giving, as you can imagine from the higher dollar amount, to many more superdelegates than to Clinton. But I think you also have to remember that, at the time, she was a known quantity. She was a brand name that everyone in the Democratic Party knew. He was just coming onto the scene nationally and, I’m sure, had in mind the idea that he might run for president, and so he was introducing himself around the Democratic Party, whereas that was something that she didn’t really need to do as much of.

AMY GOODMAN: Just looking at your report, the universe of an undecided superdelegates includes forty-six members of Congress who have received a total of $333,900 in contributions from the political action committee set up by Senator Obama?

MASSIE RITSCH: And we should predict, I mean, based on what we’ve seen with the others, that about 80 percent of those will go with Obama, if it comes down to this at the convention.

AMY GOODMAN: Rob Richie, explain overall again who superdelegates are and how they were set up.

ROB RICHIE: Well, superdelegates — I don’t really like that term. It conveys something positive, and I guess I’m not against elected officials and party leaders, but they’re unpledged delegates that have been designated a secure seat at the convention with a vote in the first round of voting there. It’s about a fifth of the total, so we’re talking about around 800 people, and it does include all of the members of Congress who are Democrats, except Joe Lieberman, who’s in that quasi-not-really-Democrat status, and then a lot of party leaders and a lot of people who represent certain constituencies like labor unions.

And they got their current status after the 1980 election, when Jimmy Carter won the nomination running as an incumbent against Ted Kennedy, who a lot of the party leaders favored. And that happened after Carter had won in ’76 as an outsider and George McGovern won in ’72 as at least — as a semi-outsider, which had flowed after a lot of changes were made after the ’68 election and the controversial nomination there. So there was kind of a backlash to sort of too much democracy within the party or too much sway for what happens at these primaries and caucuses. And in 1982, there was a convention that — the midterm convention, where they made some changes to add the superdelegates to the process.

AMY GOODMAN: And the whole Hart-Mondale debate, how they fit in there?

ROB RICHIE: Well, Walter Mondale had been Carter’s vice president and, of course, very well connected within the party. Gary Hart was an outsider. And the superdelegates, en masse, essentially, came forward early for Mondale and made it clear that Hart, even while he could win New Hampshire and some of the early votes, was facing an uphill battle.

And you can see it right now when they do the tallies and they add the superdelegates into the tallies, even though they’re not pledged, you know, so that whatever commitments they make are just on paper and something that could change, but when you see someone with more delegates in just the general tally, it gives them a sense of being the frontrunner and a different kind of status.

And I think it’s very problematic for the party this year. And I think what I hope it also draws attention to, in a more broad sense, is that a lot of the ways that the delegates get pledged, a lot of the contests that are going on, are also not very democratic. And there’s a lot of things that the party needs to do, I think, to make this nomination process more welcoming to people and fairer, and the superdelegates, in some ways, is the tip of the big iceberg.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a lot of interesting issues that are raised. For example, the majority of these superdelegates are white, and if the popular vote or even the delegates go to Obama but the superdelegates override the sentiment of the electorate, that raises a very significant issue. Also, Congressman John Lewis was quoted in the New York Times last week saying, although he committed to Hillary Clinton, has endorsed her, that at the convention he would switch to Obama.

ROB RICHIE: No, I think it’s — we’re going to see a lot of that. And I think that, in some ways, what I hope we begin to see is a recognition that with these two candidates, it would be way to explosive for the superdelegates to come in and determine the election or to pick the winner in a way that might trump what happened in the process. I think what we’ll also see is a lot of complaints from — whoever doesn’t win the majority during the pledged delegate process can point to a lot of problems with the current way that it’s done and make a case for their own candidacy.

But I think if, right now, the superdelegates begin to move toward saying, “Look, we have two strong candidates with strong bases of support, and it would be way too controversial for us to come in as unpledged delegates and to change what the pledged delegates are doing,” makes a lot of sense to me for the party, because, otherwise, here, after the wake of the controversial ugly elections of 2000 and 2004 for president, where the Democrats had so many justifiable complaints with the process, to come in and give any sense that the elections don’t count as much as what unelected people say, I think, would be very problematic. And I should say that a lot of these people are elected, but they weren’t elected as delegates, and that’s their problem, I think, in making sort of a decisive choice.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the difference.

ROB RICHIE: Well, they include so many people who have been elected — state governors and members of Congress — so that they have won, but they didn’t win their place as delegates, so that in the process that’s been chosen and agreed to for this year, which includes a lot of problematic practices like caucuses, where, you know, two percent of the voters turn out, and, you know, these strange ways of allocating delegates in different congressional districts that don’t lead to very fair results, and so on. Whatever process has been chosen, that is the agreed-upon rules for determining who’s going to get more pledged delegates, and so that means there’s some kind of electoral process for picking those people and that then these other delegates are at the convention having a first-round vote without having gone through that process. That’s what I mean by they’re sort of unelected to that position of being able to pick the nominee.

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t Donna Brazile say — she’s the former Al Gore campaign manager who is a commentator at CNN and a superdelegate — that she would quit if the superdelegates determined this?

ROB RICHIE: I think a lot of people would feel that way or that they would feel very disillusioned or very upset that, you know, that the popular process that had been sort of agreed upon could be trumped by the sort of judgment of the party leaders. And I think that to kind of take that off the table, it would make a lot of sense for the superdelegates, sooner rather than later, to say that we will support whoever gets the most pledged delegates at this point, which at this point we don’t know who that’s going to be. I mean, it is really open, so that it’s not tilting it one way or the other. It’s just saying that we will let the process of who’s really winning delegates and states determine who the nominee is.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, what about, you know, the head of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean’s comment, saying, “We’re going to have to get the candidates together and make some kind of an arrangement, because I don’t think we can afford to have a brokered convention; that would not be good […] for either party”?

ROB RICHIE: That seems to be, you know, putting pressure on the superdelegates to come up with some kind of plan like this, which I think is a smart way to go. I should say that I’m not really in the conventional wisdom camp that the longer the Democrats don’t have a nominee, the weaker they are in November. I think as soon as they have a nominee, you can imagine the kind of intense focus from those who want to defeat that nominee have someone to go after.

And at this point, they’re two attractive candidates to a lot of Democrats, and they’re running a generally forward-looking, positive campaign. And if it doesn’t get too vitriolic, I think that they get to be in that position of dominating the media for as long as this goes forward and not making it easy for those who want to defeat them to kind of just zero in on one of them.

But I think if it goes beyond the votes of the states, maybe even beyond Pennsylvania in late April, then you’re going to start seeing more discomfort within the party and more people not trusting the process. And even this very conversation we’re having today is not the process — is not the conversation the Democrats want to have.

AMY GOODMAN: Rob Richie —-

MASSIE RITSCH: That would really just -— if I could just —-

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Massie Ritsch.

MASSIE RITSCH: —- squander the excitement that the Democrats have generated around their candidates on both sides. I mean, if this were to be decided ultimately by the superdelegates in a way that doesn’t line up with the results in the primaries and caucuses, they really would just completely deflate this momentum that they’ve created going into it. But I think Rob makes a good point, that they may not realize that dragging this out could actually be very good for them. If the media focuses on that fight and it’s a positive one and it remains a positive one, generally, then that could be good for them.

ROB RICHIE: And I should add that I — or I just want to make sure that those who care about the Democratic Party and those who care about kind of a fair process of parties choosing nominees, there’s a great opening to make it better for next time. And as we look at the vote in Wisconsin tomorrow, they’re voting this early for no rational reason, and, of course, they’re later than most states, but they’re in the middle of a snowstorm and a cold snap that’s about, you know, minus-ten degrees in parts of the state. There’s a reason to vote in February. It’s just what we’re doing, and it — you know, like that alone isn’t a sensible way to have our votes. We should do it later, where we don’t run into winter weather. And I think that whatever happens in this year’s process, there’s a great opportunity to make it fairer for 2012.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, Massie Ritsch, a spokesperson for the Center for Responsive Politics. They’re both in Washington, D.C.

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