Cover Story

Wild cards

"Wild cards" Continued...

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

Both Clinton and Obama have gained substantial super delegate support in their respective home states of New York and Illinois as well. As current Democratic senators, the two candidates also have super delegate status and may vote for themselves.

Clinton and Obama have each clinched other well-known super delegates. Clinton's support includes former vice president Walter Mondale, while Sens. John Kerry and Edward Kennedy have committed to Obama. Other big-name super delegates remain uncommitted, including former president Jimmy Carter and former vice president Al Gore.

To pick up high-profile super delegates, the candidates have waged aggressive behind-the-scene campaigns. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson told the Los Angeles Times that when he dropped out of the race in early January, his phone immediately buzzed with calls from Clinton, Obama, and former senator John Edwards.

Richardson hasn't committed to a candidate, but said: "There's a massive push for endorsements. It's gone pretty far."

Edwards' campaign manager David Bonior, a former House Democratic whip, courted super delegates for the campaign before Edwards dropped out of the race on Jan. 30. Clinton and Obama have established mini-whip operations within Congress, recruiting House members to sway uncommitted Democratic colleagues, who each hold a super delegate vote.

But it's not just big names that attract the attention of the candidates. Each campaign also courts members of the DNC, who are often less well-known but make up a significant percentage of super delegates.

That means they court people like Fagafaga Daniel Langkilde, a television producer and DNC member on behalf of American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific. They've courted super delegate Martha Dixon, a successful fashion designer from Arkadelphia, Ark., and a member of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. (Langkilde and Dixon have both pledged their support to Clinton.)

Clinton, Obama, and Edwards also courted Charleston attorney Howe until he announced his endorsement less than a week before South Carolina's Democratic primary.

From his office on Broad Street, Howe readily tells visitors to Charleston what they should eat (She-Crab soup), what they should see (the historic waterfront), and what they should buy (sweetgrass baskets handmade by locals). The chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party also tells fellow Democrats which candidate he thinks they should vote for: Sen. Barack Obama.

Clinching Howe's endorsement and super delegate support was a hard-fought win for Obama. "His staff worked on me very effectively," Howe told WORLD.

For the Obama campaign, working on Howe meant inviting the delegate to small gatherings with the candidate, extending phone calls from high-level campaign officials, and even making sure Howe's wife got a good seat at a campaign rally featuring Obama and Oprah Winfrey in Columbia, S.C.

Clinton and Edwards courted Howe as well, though not as aggressively as Obama. Howe took his endorsement decision seriously: "I studied for this more than I ever studied for a law school exam."

In the end, Howe decided Obama stands the best chance of winning in November, and believes he could unite the country. When Obama called Howe from a plane on the way to Nevada in mid-January, Howe told the senator he was in.

Traditionally, the Democratic nomination is decided long before the national convention in August. During the primary process, one candidate typically emerges as a clear frontrunner and gains enough delegates to clinch the nomination. When that happens, super delegates usually throw their support behind the obvious nominee, even if that means withdrawing their support from another candidate.

This means super delegates usually serve an important role in endorsing candidates during the primary process, but don't typically play a decisive role in the outcome at the convention. David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University, told WORLD he expects this scenario to unfold again this year and thinks the mega-batch of Democratic primaries on Feb. 5 could be decisive in handing one candidate a majority of delegates.

But the Democrats' rules of awarding delegates proportionally could complicate the winnowing process. Democratic primaries award delegates based on the percentage of votes a candidate receives in the contest: For example, if Clinton wins 50 percent of the vote, she wins approximately 50 percent of the state's delegates. If Obama wins 40 percent of the vote in the same state, he wins 40 percent of the state's delegates.

(Republicans favor winner-take-all primaries, with the exception of a few key contests.)

In Democratic primaries with a close finish, candidates can end up with nearly identical numbers of delegates. For example, Obama won the Iowa caucuses and 16 delegates, but Clinton clinched 15 delegates of her own in the state. Clinton won the New Hampshire primary and nine delegates, but the second-place Obama clinched nine delegates as well.

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