Superdelegates Question Their Role

This story was written by Josh Oppenheimer, The Daily Princetonian
In a nation with roughly 200 million citizens of voting age, the presidential nomination of one of the two major political parties may be decided by about 800 party bigwigs.

As Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) continue to vie for the Democratic Party nomination, they must battle for the hearts and minds of super-powerful superdelegates. These current elected officials, former high-ranking elected officials and party leaders will cast the deciding votes at the Democratic National Convention in August unless one candidate finishes the primary season with the 2,025 delegates needed for the nomination by dominating in the final ten primaries and caucuses.

Superdelegates, however, are also still very much divided, with 220 supporting Obama, 257 supporting Clinton and the rest undecided, according to The New York Times.

Some superdelegates are divided not only over whom to support but also on the criteria and timeframe for making the decision. Likewise, superdelegates question their superpower and the appropriateness of their role as party officials in choosing the nominee.

New Jersey's 18 superdelegates and Princetonians who serve as superdelegates around the country are just as conflicted.

Where they stand

The majority of New Jersey's superdelegates have followed the collective will of the voters in the New Jersey Democratic primary, who propelled Clinton to a 54 to 44 percent win over Obama on Super Tuesday.

Positioned prominently among the 11 superdelegates supporting Clinton are Gov. Jon Corzine and Sen. Robert Menendez, both of whom have campaigned for Clinton in key states such as Texas and Pennsylvania.

Of the remaining superdelegates, four support Obama while three, including Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Rep. Rush Holt, have not publicly stated whom they will support. Holt represents the 12th Congressional district, which includes both Princeton Borough and Princeton Township.

At least four non-New Jersey superdelegates have strong ties to the University.

Steve Grossman, who served as Democratic National Committee (DNC) National Chairman from 1997-1999, said that he has supported Clinton since the early stages of her candidacy. Grossman was appointed to his DNC post by former president Bill Clinton.

Rep. Jim Marshall(D-Ga.), who was originally a member of the Class of 1970 before taking time off to serve in Vietnam, has not yet decided whom he will support.

"I am hoping that [the nomination] will be decided before I have to offer an opinion on it," he explained.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and AFL-CIO Executive Vice President and DNC Vice Chairwoman Linda Chavez-Thompson are also undecided.

Making their choice

New Jersey and Princeton alumni superdelegates who do support a candidate cited various reasons for their support, including personal interactions with a candidate, perceived electability, and the candidates' leadership performance and capabilities.

Grossman explained that his long-time relationship with the Clintons had a role in his decision. "The president and Hillary Clinton have been personal friends of mine for close to 20 years," Grossman said.

Grossman, who co-founded the National Jewish Democratic Council in 1990 and has lauded Senator Clinton's pro-Israel views, added that in addition to his personal ties to the Clintons, "[he] thought she was the best candidate for the position both in terms of command and knowledge of foreign policy in a time of war and her ability to deal with an increasingly difficult economic situation."

Christine "Roz" Samuels, who spent her career in education and was named a New Jersey superdelegate after 12 years serving as the secretary-treasurer of the Newark Teachers' Union, initially supported Clinton beause she was "gung ho to see a female running for president."

In February, however, Samuels announced that she had switched her support to Obama, citing her belief that he "is a man with a vision."

She said that she was particularly inspired that through his campaign, "young people are getting involved in this country," adding that she appreciates that Obama brings people together regardless of color or gender.

"When you look at his audiences," she said, "it's always a diverse audience; it's never all black, and it's never all white."

In addition to his ability to unite, Samuels said she believes Obama has the leadership abilities to "bring the boys home from Iraq" and handle the current economic situation.

How should superdelegates exercise their superpowers?

Undecided superdelegates disagree as to how to make their decisions.

Samuels said she thinks that candidates should rely on "the feeling in their hearts."

Grossman, however, said he believes that the question of which of the two Democrats would be more likely to defeat presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) should drive superdelegates' decisions.

To gauge the electability of the candidates, Grossman supports combining the candidates' national vote tallies for the entire primary process with polling data for large swing states.

For both of these reasons, Grossman said he believes that other superdelegates should support Clinton. He cited last week's Quinnipiac University poll, which shows Clinton outperforming Obama in head-to-head comparisons with McCain in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, and predicted that Clinton will outperform Obama in the 10 states that have yet to vote.

"Obama is ahead by 700,000 votes right now, which is not a lot," he explained.

Though Marshall has not decided which criteria he will rely on to choose between Clinton and Obama, he cited the candidates' judgment and electability, as well as the votes in his own state and district, as considerations.

Obama won the Feb. 5 Georgia primary with 67 percent of the vote to Clinton's 31 percent, with the counties comprising Marshall's 8th Congressional district almost universally leaning toward Obama.

Effects of negative campaigning

One issue affecting not just superdelegates but all voters has been the recent negative attacks made by affiliates of both campaigns.

Grossman called the role of surrogates in the campaign "divisive," citing Clinton surrogate and 1984 vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro's comment that race has helped Obama and Obama surrogate General McPeak's reference to a Bill Clinton comment as "like McCarthy" as examples.

Former president Bill Clinton's comparison between Obama's victory in the South Carolina primary and Jesse Jackson's victories in the state in 1984 and 1988 were viewed by some commentators as relegating Obama's success to merely a function of the racial makeup of the state rather than a broader level of support. The comment influenced Samuels to place her support behind Obama.

Samuels said she felt that the comment reflected negatively on Senator Clinton, saying that "I didn't like the message that Senator Clinton was starting to send out."

Though Grossman said he wants these types of comments to stop, he said that "at the end of the day, I hope that superdelegates make their decisions based on the character, values and track records of the candidates, not based on the statements of their surrogates, even their spouses."

Florida and Michigan's delegate dilemma

Clinton supporters have passionately argued that for the nomination to be decided based on the wishes of Democrats nationwide, voters of Florida and Michigan will have to be heard.

The DNC stripped both states of thei delegates after the states scheduled their primaries before Feb. 5 without having been granted special permission to do so from the party. Neither candidate campaigned in either state, both of which Clinton carried. Obama removed his name from the Michigan ballot.

Corzine said Monday that "ignoring Florida and Michigan is a failed policy, a failed action by the party," adding that "it's time for people to stop standing in the way of 'do-overs.' "

Despite the lack of campaigning, Grossman proposes seating the Florida delegates but penalizing each by half of a vote, since "both candidates were well known going into the primary elections."

For Michigan, however, Grossman advocates holding a new election in mid-June funded by private donations. Citing a conversation with Michigan's state party chairman, Mark Brewer, Grossman said that a revote would be possible if both Clinton and Obama pushed for it.

Though Clinton has advocated a revote, Grossman explained that Obama is not in favor of such a move.

"Everybody knows that the Obama people don't want a revote; they want to run out the clock," he said.

Unless Michigan and Florida delegates are included, Grossman fears that some Democrats will feel "outraged by a lack of fairness."

Grossman also noted that he believes Clinton will stay in the race "as long as the Obama campaign continues to stonewall the revote in Michigan."

Marshall does not foresee a fair scenario for including the delegates from these states.

"I don't see how anybody can say that the primary elections fairly reflect the voters, and I don't see how you can redo those primaries in a practical way," he explained.

Eventual resolution

Superdelegates are united in their desire to see the Democratic race resolved in a non-divisive manner.

Holt sees superdelegates playing a key role in the resolution if neither candidate wins enough pledged delegates to guarantee the nomination. "The role of the superdelegates is to keep the process on track," he said.

To that end, Holt will stay "scrupulously neutral" to "save my leverage so that I am best able to help if necessary." Though he does not want to commit to a specific course of action, Holt said, he will probably choose whom to endorse before the Democratic National Convention.

Marshall also noted that he wants the candidacy decided "sooner rather than later."

Samuels worries that "Republicans are going to walk away with this election" if there is a divided convention. To avoid this fate, Samuels said she believes that DNC national chairman Howard Dean "will try to bring some closure to this matter."

She predicted that 'before the convention, [Dean] is going to step in and say, 'look, we have to get our house in order.' "

She also predicts that Clinton supporters will switch sides in hope of bringing the party together. "There are only three of us that have [gone] over to the Obama side so far, but there will be more," she said.

Corzine received national attention last week for saying that he reserves the right to make such a switch but clarified Monday that he would only do so if Obama had a commanding lead among both pledged delegates and total votes, and only if tallies included the voices of Michigan and Florida voters.

Grossman is less worried about a divided convention hurting Democrats in November. He noted that among the three Democratic presidents to win multiple terms in the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, was nominated on the 46th ballot of the 1912 convention and Franklin Roosevelt was nominated on the fourth ballot in 1932.
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