Superdelegates Took Campaign Cash from Hillary and Obama
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At this summer's Democratic National Convention, nearly 800 members of Congress, state governors and Democratic Party leaders could be the tiebreakers in the intense contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. If neither candidate can earn the support of at least 2,025 delegates in the primary voting process, the decision of who will represent the Democrats in November's presidential election will fall not to the will of the people but to these "superdelegates" -- the candidates' friends, colleagues and even financial beneficiaries. Both contenders will be calling in favors.
And while it would be unseemly for the candidates to hand out thousands of dollars to primary voters, or to the delegates pledged to represent the will of those voters, elected officials who are superdelegates have received at least $890,000 from Obama and Clinton in the form of campaign contributions over the last three years, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Obama, who narrowly leads in the count of pledged, "non-super" delegates, has doled out more than $694,000 to superdelegates from his political action committee, Hope Fund, or campaign committee since 2005. Of the 81 elected officials who had announced as of Feb. 12 that their superdelegate votes would go to the Illinois senator, 34, or 40 percent of this group, have received campaign contributions from him in the 2006 or 2008 election cycles, totaling $228,000. In addition, Obama has been endorsed by 52 superdelegates who haven't held elected office recently and, therefore, didn't receive campaign contributions from him.
Clinton does not appear to have been as openhanded. Her PAC, HILLPAC, and campaign committee appear to have distributed $195,500 to superdelegates. Only 12 percent of her elected superdelegates, or 13 of 109 who have said they will back her, have received campaign contributions, totaling about $95,000 since 2005. An additional 128 unelected superdelegates support Clinton.
Because superdelegates will make up around 20 percent of 4,000 delegates to the Democratic convention in August--Republicans don't have superdelegates -- Clinton and Obama are aggressively wooing the more than 400 superdelegates who haven't yet made up their minds. Since 2005 Obama has given 52 of the undecided superdelegates a total of at least $363,900, while Clinton has given a total of $88,000 to 15 of them. Anticipating that their intense competition for votes in state primaries and caucuses will result in a near-tie going into the nominating convention, the two candidates are making personal calls to superdelegates now, or are recruiting other big names to do so on their behalf. With no specific rules about what can and can't be done to court these delegates, just about anything goes.
"Only the limits of human creativity could restrict the ways in which Obama and Clinton will try to be helpful to superdelegates," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "My guess is that if the nomination actually depends on superdelegates, the unwritten rule may be, 'ask and ye shall receive.' "
Superdelegates will make their decisions based on a number of factors, said Richard Herrera, a political scientist at Arizona State University. Some have long-time political and personal ties to Clinton or Obama, some will support the candidate they think is more likely to beat the Republican nominee and others will commit to the candidate who won their state's support. Deciding whom to support based entirely on contributions from the candidates would be a political liability, Herrera said.
"I think Democrats, both regular delegates and superdelegates, see this year as an opportunity to really take back the White House," he said, "and I don't think there's that short-term political concern that money will play that kind of role. It's a much bigger picture at this point."
The superdelegates themselves say the same thing -- that any money flowing from the presidential candidates to the delegates' own campaigns hasn't had any sort of influence on their decisions. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell received $5,000 from Clinton in the 2006 election cycle and has endorsed her, while he hasn't received anything from Obama, campaign finance records indicate. Policy and a personal relationship with the Clintons, not money, swung his vote into her camp, according to spokesman Chuck Ardo. "The governor has known Mrs. Clinton for 15 years and has certainly had a close relationship with President Clinton as well," Ardo said. "I think those are the factors that are really more relevant, especially given the small fraction of his fundraising that Clinton's contributions made. It'd be ludicrous to tie that contribution to his support."
Yet the Center for Responsive Politics has found that campaign contributions have been a generally reliable predictor of whose side a superdelegate will take. In cases where superdelegates had received contributions from both Clinton and Obama, all seven elected officials who received more money from Clinton have committed to her. Thirty-four of the 43 superdelegates who received more money from Obama, or 79 percent, are backing him. In every case the Center found in which superdelegates received money from one candidate but not the other, the superdelegate is backing the candidate who gave them money. Four superdelegates who have already pledged received the same amount of contributions from both Clinton and Obama -- and all committed to Clinton.
In addition to Gov. Rendell of Pennsylvania, at least two other governors who have endorsed Clinton have also received contributions from her in the past. Ohio's Gov. Ted Strickland received $10,000 and Oregon's Gov. Ted Kulongoski received $5,000. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who dropped out of the presidential race in January, has not endorsed a candidate but received $5,000 from Clinton in the 2006 election cycle.
The money that Clinton and Obama have contributed to the superdelegates who may now determine their fate has come from three sources: the candidates' campaign accounts for president and, before that, Senate, and from their leadership PACs. These PACs exist precisely to support other politicians in their elections -- and, thus, to make friends and collect chits. Leadership PACs are supposed to go dormant after a presidential candidate officially enters the race.
Contributions to candidates for federal office are relatively easy to track, but money given to state and local officials is harder to spot. Campaign finance reports from Senate candidate committees are still filed on paper, making it difficult to know who is receiving money from them. For that reason it's possible that Obama and Clinton have given superdelegates even more than the $890,000 the Center for Responsive Politics has identified. While Obama has received the support of numerous state governors, state legislators and local officials, it does not appear that his leadership PAC or presidential candidate committee has contributed to any of them. His PAC did make one interesting contribution in 2006: for her Senate re-election, Hillary Clinton received a $4,200 contribution from Obama.
Another senator running for office in 2006, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, collected $10,000 from both Clinton and Obama. As a superdelegate, Whitehouse is backing Clinton for the White House. "His decision was based on his relationship with the Clintons. President Clinton nominated him to be United States attorney in 1994, in Rhode Island, and he believes Sen. Clinton is the strongest candidate," said spokeswoman Alex Swartsel, adding that money wasn't a factor in Whitehouse's decision. "We were a top targeted Senate race in 2006 and we received a number of contributions, including those from Clinton and Obama."
Though it might seem undemocratic to allow elected officials who have received money from the candidates to have such power in picking their party's nominee, the process was not meant to be democratic, Arizona State's Herrera said. "If anything, it was meant to take it out of the democratic process. In 1982 [the party] said they needed to have some professionals making decisions here to blunt the potential effects of what they perceived as amateur delegates making decisions -- those who vote with their heart and not their head."
Center for Responsive Politics researchers Douglas Weber and Luke Rosiak contributed to this report.