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With Obama-Clinton Race Deadlocked, Focus Turns to Delegates (and Superdelegates)

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As Democratic Party chair Howard Dean says the party might try to make “some kind of arrangement” between Obama or Clinton if no clear nominee emerges by mid-March or April, we speak with Duke University Professor David Rohde on the race for the delegates and the role of superdelegates. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, your thoughts after Super Tuesday?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’ve been covering the election, as most everyone else in journalism has, and I think the most important number that came out of Tuesday’s election was the total votes in all of these primaries. I think you mentioned 14.6 million people voted for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. A total of 8.3 million voted for one of the three remaining Republican candidates. That means that two people voted Democratic for every one that voted Republican on Tuesday, an enormous difference in the turnout votes, which I think augers well for the Democratic Party in November, assuming that the Democrats stay united, because there’s clearly much more enthusiasm among voters who are voting Democratic than those who are voting Republican.

And, of course, the vote has been split dramatically between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, right down the middle. And it’s astonishing the differences in the voters, in terms of the makeup of the voters. Clearly, if you are Hispanic, if you’re low-income, if you’re a woman, and if you’re elderly, you’re much more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton. And if you’re young, if you’re African American, if you’re a man, and if you’re higher income, you’re much more likely to vote for Barack Obama. There’s an enormous divide in the Democratic Party.

And as Howard Dean has said yesterday, he doesn’t want to see this go all the way to the convention, because then the convention — the preparation of the Democrats for November would be severely hampered, so that there will be, I think, increasingly a call for a united candidacy. And, of course, the question of who is the president and who is the vice president will continue to be the battle, but I think that no matter what the polls say about who John McCain fares better about, we all know what the polls said six months ago about who would fare better for president in both parties. So polls right now for what will happen six months from now mean nothing. The question is, does the Democratic electorate stay with the same enthusiasm all the way through to November, or does it begin to eat itself in the continuing battle?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about what they’re arguing over, and that is the delegates and the superdelegates.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. Well, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have emerged from Super Tuesday in a virtual dead-heat in the race for the Democratic nomination. Both camps are looking ahead to a fierce battle for delegates, and neither candidate is likely to emerge as the clear frontrunner anytime soon.

The Democratic nomination requires support from 2,025 delegates. According to an analysis by the New York Times, Clinton has a slight edge with 892 delegates to 716 for Obama. This count includes pledged delegates, those who won in a state primary or caucus; and so-called superdelegates, Democrats who are governors, senators and party leaders who can vote for whomever they want.

The narrow margin prompted concern on Wednesday from the chairman of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean. He told cable news channel New York One that if no clear nominee emerged by the middle of March or April, “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 news for either party.”

AMY GOODMAN: Both the Obama and Clinton camps now look ahead to thirteen nominating contests over the next month, including Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska and Washington State this weekend; Maryland and Virginia, Tuesday; Wisconsin, the week after that.

For more on the Democratic race, we turn to David Rohde, a professor of political science at Duke University, joining us on the line from Durham, North Carolina. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Professor Rohde.

DAVID ROHDE: Thank you. I’m happy to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain this issue of delegates, superdelegates, regular delegates, and why it’s so hard to even find out how many each of the candidates have won so far?

DAVID ROHDE: OK. Starting with the regular delegates in the Democratic Party, about 80 percent of the delegates for the convention, as was said, slightly over 4,000 delegates total, about 80 percent of those are allocated directly by the voters through the primaries and caucuses that each state holds. This is a legacy of the reforms that the Democratic Party instituted after the 1968 convention and the riots in Chicago and things like that to try and put more power in the hands of rank-and-file voters in terms of the selection of delegates, instead of having it done by party bosses, which is the way it was before.

Then, after a few elections with that experience, the Democrats decided that while that was the general tilt they wanted to have, they also wanted to make sure that party leaders and office holders got to participate in the convention and in the nominating process. And so, in 1984, they created the system that’s come to be called superdelegates, which simply means that there are a set of delegates, about 20 percent, or precisely 796 this time around, who are delegates by virtue of the office that they hold automatically, so all the members of the Democratic National Committee, all of the Democratic members of the US House, all the Democrats in the US Senate, all Democratic governors and a handful of former officeholders like former President Clinton, former President Carter, former Vice President Gore, etc.

The big difference for our purposes is that the delegates that are allocated through primaries and caucuses are committed to their candidates partly by virtue of the decisions of voters and partly by the fact that the candidates themselves get to approve who the delegates are. The superdelegates aren’t committed to anybody. They are designed to be and actually are free agents who get to decide for themselves who they’re going to support. And that gets us back to the question that you asked, why it’s so hard to find out who these people are supporting. The only — first of all, they have to have made a decision, which many of them haven’t, and secondly, they have to be willing to announce it publicly, which many of them aren’t.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, I’d like to ask you also about the differences between the caucus delegates and the primary delegates, because obviously on Tuesday, there were quite a few caucus states, as well as primary states, and Barack Obama won many of the caucus states, especially out West. And what’s the differences in terms of the delegates from caucus states or primary states in terms of their selection?

DAVID ROHDE: There’s no difference after the fact. The delegates have the same status, and they’re basically the same kinds of people. They’re people who are personally loyal, in one way or another, to the candidates. What’s really different is about the process by which they’re selected. That is, a primary is just like an election. We go into the voting booth, stop for a couple of minutes, cast our ballot and walk out. Caucuses are, as we saw in Iowa, they’re meetings of party people, and they go on for a length of time. They often make decisions about other things than the allocation of national convention delegates to candidates. But the big difference is that they tend to be very small and much lower participation by — than in primaries. So that’s how the Obama people were able to dominate the delegate selection in caucuses, is that they turned out a lot more of their people for the caucuses than the Clinton people did for their candidate.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Rohde, what happens if both candidates go into the convention with about the same number of delegates? And what about Howard Dean’s comment that this just can’t be, it can’t be a brokered convention, a deal has to be made beforehand?

DAVID ROHDE: Well, let me say at the outset that, I mean, I think a brokered convention is unlikely, not impossible, not inconceivable, but unlikely, merely because we’re down to two candidates. And so, as we saw on Super Tuesday, it is possible for the two candidates to almost precisely split the number of delegates, but that would have to happen sort of all the way down to the convention. And I think more likely is that one candidate will open up a small, but significant, lead, and so that may lead to some sort of resolution.

However, I must say I’m not at all sure what Howard Dean calling the candidates together and trying to get them to come to an agreement is likely to accomplish. I mean, each of these people want the nomination. Each of them will press forward and try to achieve it. And I think the only thing that’s going to make one back out is that they become convinced that they’re not going to be successful.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you say the unlikelihood that it will go to the convention, clearly the issue of if it is a very close vote, then you do have the potentially divisive battle over whether the Florida delegates and the Michigan delegates would be seated at the convention. And obviously that would begin to create enormous — a divisive battle within the — not only within the Democratic Party, but among Democrats in Florida and Michigan, wouldn’t it?

DAVID ROHDE: Oh, yes. I think that that has the potential to be something very bad. And that’s something else that the Democratic National Committee is trying to work out. There’s a proposal now — and this, I think, might bear fruit — for both Michigan and Florida to hold party caucuses for the selection of delegates perhaps in April or May. And if they can get the state parties to agree to that, that would be a way of allocating delegates and choosing delegates for Florida and Michigan that would not involve a big fight at the convention.

AMY GOODMAN: David Rohde, I want to thank you very much for being with us, professor of political science at Duke University in North Carolina.

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