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Super Delegates: The Secret Force Behind Candidates

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders is hugged by a voter after voting in the Vermont primary in Burlington, Vermont, Tuesday, March 1, 2016, on Super Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders is hugged by a voter after voting in the Vermont primary in Burlington, Vermont, Tuesday, March 1, 2016, on Super Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Super Delegates: The Secret Force Behind Candidates
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If you count the delegates won by Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the race is close.

Clinton, after a big primary win Saturday in South Carolina, had 90 elected delegates, compared to 65 for Sanders, according to

But when you count other delegates, Clinton’s lead is much larger – 543-85, the political website said.

The reason: “superdelegates.”

“They are unlike other delegates in that they are not elected in primaries or caucuses, don't represent a particular candidate, can endorse whomever they wish, and are not bound on the first ballot or any subsequent ballot,” said Norm Ornstein. He is a government and politics expert at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

Superdelegates are party leaders who make up 15 percent of the 4,763 Democratic delegates. A majority of the 4,763 delegates is needed to win the Democratic presidential nomination at the party’s convention this summer in Philadelphia.

Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state, and Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, are the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates.

Most delegates to the Democratic and Republican conventions are elected in primaries and caucuses.

Superdelegates are not elected. They are governors, mayors, members of Congress and other party leaders who automatically become delegates. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are among the Democratic super delegates.

The Republicans have 2,472 delegates to select their presidential nominee. About 7 percent are superdelegates.

The Republican National Committee says the party adopted a rule in 2012 that requires its superdelegates to vote based on the choices made by voters in their home states. That means they play much less of a role than Democratic superdelegates.

Superdelegates have made a big difference for Clinton. After the first four Democratic contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, Clinton had a 90-65 elected delegate advantage over Sanders. But a large lead in super delegates – 453 for Clinton and only 20 for Sanders -- puts her in a big lead for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The lead among superdelegates reflects the view of some party leaders that Clinton is more electable than Sanders, Ornstein said. But their support has angered some, especially among young voters, who have packed Sanders rallies, he said.

Said Ornstein: “They (superdelegates) are controversial now on the Democratic Party side because the overwhelming majority have endorsed Hillary Clinton, while the activist outsiders who support Bernie Sanders see this as a kind of a cabal to block the popular will.”

Isabel Framer of Ohio, a superdelegate for Clinton, told Reuters she has made some voters angry. On one voice mail left for Framer, a caller says he does not think it is fair: “you get to vote whoever way you want. I’ll be watching your vote.”

But she said such criticism has not changed her mind and she still plans to vote for Clinton at the Democratic National Convention.

After four Republican primaries and caucuses, Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman, has 82 delegates, according to Tied for second place are Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, with 17 delegates each.

Brian Brox, a Tulane University political scientist, said from the mid-19th century through the early 1970s, Republican and Democratic officials chose presidential candidates.

The switch to voting by rank and file party members came after the 1968 Democratic convention. That was the Chicago convention that drew thousands of protestors opposing the nomination of Hubert Humphrey because he supported the Vietnam War.

“Today, even though some party officials have voting power at the conventions at which nominations are decided, the vast majority of delegates to those nominating conventions are selected in primaries and caucuses at which registered voters are free to participate,” Brox said.

In November, Americans will vote for president by choosing between the Republican and Democratic nominees, as well as any independent candidates who run.

The winning candidate in each state will get Electoral College delegates, with wins in larger states worth the most. Usually, the candidate who gets the most votes wins, but there are exceptions. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won more votes than Republican George W. Bush, but Bush won the presidency because he got more Electoral College votes.

The Council on Foreign Relations describes the election process for U.S. presidents as “one of the most complex, lengthy and expensive in the world.”

I'm Bruce Alpert.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

super adj. special

primaryn. an election in which members of the same political party run against each other for the chance to be in a larger and more important election

caucusn. a meeting of members of a political party for the purpose of choosing candidates for an election

endorse – v. to publicly or officially say that you support a candidate

subsequent -- adj. happening or coming after something else

controversialadj. relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement, or argument

outsider n. a person who does not belong to or is not accepted as part of a particular group or organization

cabaln. a small group of people who work together secretly