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Clyburn Pooh-Poohs the Power of the Superdelegates

Majority Whip Jim Clyburn in his office during an interview. (The Washington Post.)

By Paul Kane
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has joined an influential chorus on Capitol Hill that believes superdelegates will not play a decisive role in the nominating convention in August. This will be the case, Clyburn believes, so long as one of the two front-runners emerges from the regular voting process with a clearly defined lead, if not the outright magic number of delegates required to secure the nomination.

Clyburn told The Trail last week that it is "crazy" to think that a majority of superdelegates would side with a candidate who finished second and flip the nomination to that candidate.

"It's crazy to think that way, and it's crazy to act that way," Clyburn said Friday in a more than 30-minute interview about the nomination fight. "What our role is supposed to be is to extend the will of the people, not reverse it."

Clyburn's view is, for now, good news for the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who has a lead in the number of pledged delegates he's collected over Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) heading into today's contests.

Clyburn has had his views on the presidential race more heavily scrutinized than just about any other member of Congress. This is because of his role as the most powerful Democrat in South Carolina, with its early voting spot last month, but also because as House majority whip he's the highest-ranking African American in Congress. Also, because Clyburn has remained neutral in the race, both Obama's and Clinton's campaigns have at times overinterpreted his comments to their benefit.

This occurred over the weekend, when Clinton's staff trumpeted Clyburn's comments to the Associated Press in South Carolina, in which the lawmaker said superdelegates should not be endorsing either candidate now and should instead let the voting process play out. He also encouraged the idea that superdelegates can freely vote their conscience regardless of how their constituents voted. "We're supposed to be unpledged delegates," Clyburn told reporters. "We are not supposed to be pledged."

But in the interview with The Trail, he more clearly spelled out a process for superdelegates. There are four voting categories in Clyburn's thinking: the number of states each candidate won, the number of overall votes won, the number of pledged delegates secured and momentum at the end of the voting process in June.

If one candidate or another has a clear lead in most or all of those categories, Clyburn said almost all superdelegates would rally behind that candidate and provide the requisite number of delegates for that candidate to win the nomination.

At this point, Obama leads Clinton in every category.

Two other senior House Democrats -- Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- have expressed similar positions on superdelegates.

"I don't think it was ever intended that superdelegates would overturn the verdict, the decision of the American people. What they are there to do is to be in place should there be a need for some change and what happens, but not to change what happened in the election," Pelosi told reporters Thursday.

"I do think it would be a huge mistake for the superdelegates to try and somehow overturn the judgment of the voters throughout the country," Van Hollen said in an interview with The Trail on C-SPAN Sunday.

Pelosi, Clyburn and Van Hollen all hold out the possibility of superdelegates flipping the nomination to a second-place finisher only if the front-runner were no longer capable of winning in November, a scenario Van Hollen described as "some kind of intervening event ... some kind of scandal erupted."

But the Pelosi-Clyburn-Van Hollen view is far from decisive for Obama, since there are enough states left in play for Clinton to catch a wave of momentum and move ahead of Obama in at least one of the Clyburn criteria categories.

If -- and only if -- Clinton is leading in one category and Obama is leading in other categories, then the nomination fight would become chaotic this summer, according to the House Democratic leaders.

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 19, 2008; 3:56 PM ET
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Nancy Pelosi is rewriting the rules. She defines some specific instances where SuperDelegates may ethically contradict voters. This is bogus! There are no such intentions or guidelines.

SuperDelgates are completely independent. They are under great pressure to follow the voters in their districts, since most are elected officials. But they are free, both within the letter and spirit of the rules, to vote according to their best judgement.

Posted by: HuckFinn | February 19, 2008 6:57 PM | Report abuse

If that's the case, what's the point of even having superdelegates?

Posted by: bjorn | February 19, 2008 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Obama will have more 'pledged' delegates, more votes, more states, more energetic voters and contributors. Dean needs to explain to her that it's not about Hilary, it's about what's good for America and that is Obama as President, Richardson as VP, Edwards as AG, and Hilary as a strong voice leading the Senate. Nothing wrong with that picture. Or Hilary can fight to the bitter end, maybe win the battle and we all lose the war.
End the Drama! Vote Obama!

Posted by: thebobbob | February 19, 2008 5:47 PM | Report abuse

"What is the purpose of superdelgates then?"

The same as the purpose of the electoral college: to overturn the will of the people, in the event that the people's will is deemed inappropriate.

Posted by: bsimon | February 19, 2008 5:17 PM | Report abuse

A set of four very interesting general eletion polls were just released this afternoon, with Virginia and North Carolina looking very competitive, while Iowa depends on the identity fo the Dem nominee. Full roundup:

Posted by: campaigndiaries | February 19, 2008 4:58 PM | Report abuse

What is the purpose of superdelgates then? Are they just dummies? Aren't they supposed to use their experience and unique insight when the popular vote does not provide a clear answer and weight in to take the responsibility for a decision that is in the best interests of the party? Let's not forget, these are not "regular" elections. These are the party election and their central purpose is to provide candidates that will best represent the party interests when the real-deal comes and when the traditional rules of democratic elections apply. Furthermore, this talk about the will of the people seems rather cheap. If Democrats really wanted to respect the will of the people they should have not allowed two big states to be kicked out of the process just as they should have provided a single set of rules that should be followed in every state election, particulalrly the secret ballot. Then we could start talking about the will of the people. Until then, you have what you have - a messy set of rules that you are nevertheless supposed to follow. If they allow and even encourage superdelegates to choose according to their informed free will and conscious then let them do their job. The election will be not be legitimate if rules are respected selectively.

Posted by: sego | February 19, 2008 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Wait till you see the Superdelegate commercial !!!

SCENE: Football stadium filled to capacity.Two predominantly African American Colleges.

SOMBER VOICE: Everyone was not always treated equal (pan to Whites only restroom)

Everyone's vote did not always count the same.(Black voters being run away from ballot boxes in the 60s)

Did you know that TODAY in the Democrat Party 1 superdelegate counts more than the vote of everyone at this game?(slowly pan the crowd)

And the superdelegates are not even elected.

Superdelegate? Or Plantation Master?

Our votes will count. Either in or out of the Democrat Party.

And the Democrat Party can COUNT on that.


Posted by: JaxMax | February 19, 2008 4:37 PM | Report abuse

The word used by Rep. Clyburn: "CRAZY". This in response to the notion of supers ignoring the will of the people. Hillary will have fewer delegates heading into the convention, period. Does her narcissism know no bounds? If the party does not see through her and rally around Obama, we will be swearing in President McCain in less than a year.

Posted by: gmundenat | February 19, 2008 4:34 PM | Report abuse

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