It boils down to this: There are 794 elected officials and party leaders who make up the pool of superdelegates. Each either supports Clinton, Obama or is uncommitted at the moment.
Yet despite the simplicity of counting superdelegates, neither the campaigns nor the news organizations tracking them can agree on where the tally stands. The only point of agreement is that Clinton appears to hold a lead.
As of April 9, for example, MSNBC reported Clinton had 256 superdelegates in her camp to Obama's 225. But The New York Times saw a much tighter race: 221 Clinton superdelegates compared with 209 for Obama.
Other news organizations tracking superdelegate votes for Clinton and Obama, respectively — including Politico (249-225), CNN (243-215) and The Associated Press (252-224) — also stood at variance with each other.
The superdelegate head count discrepancy is no small matter, for Clinton’s hopes of winning the Democratic nomination are predicated on a strategy that hinges on winning enough superdelegate votes to overcome her expected deficit in pledged delegates at the end of the primary season.
Richard Stevenson, the political editor of The New York Times, provided a good reason why news outlets keep coming up with different tallies: “This is an art rather than a science.”
Its being an art rather than a science is in large part due to the motivations of the superdelegates themselves. Many of them are acutely aware of the political sensitivities surrounding their votes, and they act accordingly — some by hedging or obfuscating their positions.
The disparity can also be traced to news-gathering techniques. Some media outlets rely on the campaigns for guidance on the count, others require an on-the-record commitment to count as an Obama or Clinton vote and a few use a combination of both.
“We survey all of them, or at least the diminishing pool who have not decided or declared publicly, on a fairly regular basis,” Stevenson said.
Currently, The Times lists 242 superdelegates wading in the “preference unknown” pool. But in an example of the kind of questions confronting news organizations, one of those listed as “preference unknown” is Margaret Campbell, a DNC member from Montana.
Campbell has already publicly endorsed Obama. But she was forced to “retract” her endorsement earlier this week because state party rules prevented her from endorsing a candidate. Since she is technically uncommitted because of the retraction, the Times counts her as “preference unknown.”
But Politico counts her as an Obama superdelegate since the retraction was based on a technicality, rather than an actual change of heart. The Politico tally, which lists individual superdelegate names and their preferences, is sourced to candidate press releases, news accounts of endorsements, Roll Call’s list of endorsements, Democratic Convention Watch blog and independent reporting that includes communication with the campaigns and interviews with the superdelegates themselves.
For the Times, superdelegates also have the option of confidentiality, Stevenson said. But at the same time, the “threshold is a firm commitment” so as not to include “leaners" — a requirement that, according to Stevenson, could be one reason the paper’s superdelegate count is lower than some other news outlets
The Times count, like others, is just an estimate, so the Associated Press number is listed just under it on NYTimes.com, for the sake of comparison.
Since the business of keeping a running superdelegate count is a timelyprocess that requires constant monitoring or the ability to make hundreds of phone calls, many news organizations rely primarily, or solely, on the AP list.
At the AP, the job of overseeing the delegate count falls largely on the shoulders of demographics reporter Stephen Ohlemacher, who oversees the most comprehensive superdelegate count going, utilizing the vast network of AP reporters from Washington to every statehouse in the country.
The AP tries to call every single superdelegate. At this point, Ohlemacher estimates, the AP has been in contact with 95 percent of all superdelegates — yes, a few dozen stragglers aren’t returning calls.
As for Montana’s Margaret Campbell, Ohlemacher said that she is not currently listed in Obama’s column, though that might change after he does more reporting.
The AP released its first full superdelegate survey in early December, and has done so after three pivotal election nights: New Hampshire, Super Tuesday and Ohio/Texas. Ohlemacher declined to say when the next full count will be, but based on past history, a safe bet is around April 22.
One major difference between the AP's count and others is the minimal involvement with the Obama or Clinton campaigns.
“I have seen lists from the campaigns,” Ohlemacher said, “but we do not rely on them.”
Although Ohlemacher said the campaign numbers have not been “wildly inflated,” he expects that “they’re always going to be a little higher than what our count would be.”
Chuck Todd, political director at NBC News, says that the campaigns are not going to present numbers that could be easily proved wrong.
So there’s a de facto honor system in place, considering that with the number of reporters and bloggers obsessing over the superdelegate count, the campaigns surely don’t want to be viewed as cheating.
And that’s good for Todd, considering that his count began with guidance from the campaigns.
Unlike the AP, which started from scratch, NBC’s political unit received guidance from the campaigns about how many superdelegates they claimed and which ones — even those not publicly committed — were expected to offer support. Todd and his team then followed up to confirm the information coming out the campaigns with individual superdelegates.
“The super number is a fluid thing,” said Todd, adding that overall it’s “more like snapshot.”
Also, it can change with the speed of the 24-hour news cycle, often through random tips streaming in from low-level supporters, Todd said, or just “people who have become delegate junkies.”
Those “delegate junkies” include reporting novices who are also attempting to provide an accurate superdelegate count — such as the two men behind what’s become a go-to superdelegate website, Democratic Convention Watch.
The pair, who insist on anonymity, consists of “Matt” and his partner on the site, “Tom.” A network administrator by trade who writes under the name “Oreo,” Tom said they started the superdelegate count in early January “because all the big media places were giving numbers and not names.” Since few outlets at the time provided the superdelegates’ names, he said, superdelegates could switch sides without accountability.
So the two began listing all the names they could find through campaign releases or lists supplied to them from the Democratic National Committee.
Now they also use readers’ tips and do their own research to pull together a list of committed superdelegates. Some superdelegates have even commented on the site which way they’re leaning or have assisted the site’s creators in keeping an accurate count.
DemConWatch’s current totals are 245 for Clinton, 221 for Obama — different, of course, than the other news outlts but still falling within the same range as their better-equipped (and -funded) competitors.
And there’s another major difference in how they’ve kept a running superdelegate tally: while individual Democrats chime in with assistance, the two campaigns have been absent from the process.
“I’ve e-mailed them,” Tom said, “but I’ve never heard anything back.”