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The Race Isn't Always Won at the Polls

By Jack Moczinski

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  A friend and I were discussing the Bradley/Gore race for the Democratic presidential nomination. It seems to be heating up, I thought. I, of course, had been suckered by the media into thinking that Bill Bradley's success of late meant the end of Al Gore.

"Don't forget about the super-delegates," my friend said.

"That's right," I said, slapping my forehead in disbelief. Here I was talking up Bill Bradley's chances, and I forgot about the super-delegates! If you listened to the news media, Bradley's high poll numbers and potential strength in the early presidential primaries meant the race was neck and neck.

But there's more to this race than the polls or the ballot boxes.

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is not like most elections. To win the nomination, candidates search for the votes of 4,336 delegates to the Los Angeles national convention next summer. A candidate needs 2,169 delegates to win the Democratic nomination. Whereas the majority of delegates to the convention are selected during the state primary contests and are usually required to vote based on the primary results, the elite class of "super-delegates" are appointed automatically by virtue of their position or relationship to the party and are free to vote for anyone they want.

There are 799 super-delegates attending the national convention. They are congressional representatives, senators, members of the Democratic National Committee, interest group leaders and other dignitaries. Gore revealed recently to the Washington Post that 420 super-delegates have pledged their support for him. Gore's recent endorsement from the AFL-CIO gives him another 80 commitments of labor leaders who are also delegates -- for a grand total of 500 Gore-committed super-delegates. Gore's campaign believes they will eventually win the super-delegates vote by 10-1 over Bradley. Before the voting has even begun, Bill Bradley spots Gore 500 delegates or 23 percent of the total votes he needs to win the nomination.

Gore's campaign strategy throughout has been to appeal to the super-delegates' party loyalty by talking about the fact that Bradley isn't a true team player. Bradley retired from the U.S. Senate at the time the Democrats were at their lowest after the Gingrich revolution and didn't stay to fight off the Republicans. To those die-hard Democratic delegates who are elected convention after convention, that's a message that gets their blood stirring -- and raises their ire for Bradley.

But there is worse news for Bradley. The Democratic Party narrowed its rules regarding winner-take-all primaries. It used to be that in a head-to-head Democratic presidential primary match-up, a candidate winning the majority of the votes would win all of the state's delegates to the national convention.

But these days the party has changed its rules and mostly allows winner-take-all primaries in overwhelming victories of 16 points or more. But if there's not an overwhelming victory by one candidate in a state primary, the candidates receive votes proportionally. So, with his vote advantage among super-delegates, Gore merely needs to stay close to Bradley in the primaries to assure victory. Because even if he loses, as long as he doesn't lose by too much, he still will pick up delegates during the primary and bring himself closer to that 2,169 mark.

So where does that leave the Bradley strategy? So far, his strategy is a good as it can get for someone challenging an incumbent vice president who has had seven years to build loyalties among Democratic activists. But Bradley will try his best to insert in the minds of the delegates the idea that Gore is vulnerable and not prepared to take on the Republican nominee. The interesting thing about the super-delegates is that they stick together. So, if they as a whole decide Gore has no chance, they'll quickly turn the bulk of their votes to Bradley.

As he waits for that to happen, Bradley must rely on regular primary voters to turn out for him and win big in the early states, like Iowa, New Hampshire and New York, and create the momentum that will get party regulars to doubt Gore and feel more comfortable voting against the party's preferred nominee. But he has to be patient, because the super- delegates will be the last to leave Gore's side.

So while Gore tries to corral and contain his current support among delegates, Bradley will attempt to pick off a delegate here and a delegate there and hope that a trickle of delegates turns into a waterfall.

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