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What Does 'Presumptive' Nominee Mean?


Now it's time for our regular segment, Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories in the news by parsing some of the words associated with them. We're going to stick with the Democratic primaries for a few more minutes and examine a word we think you'll be hearing a lot this week - presumptive nominee. Donald Trump has been the presumptive Republican nominee for about a week-and-a-half. Hillary Clinton expects to grab that title on Tuesday. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving is on the line from NPR West in California so we can talk more about this. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So what does it mean to become the presumptive nominee?

ELVING: It means a candidate has secured enough votes to win on a first ballot at the convention and be the party nominee. Now it is not the same thing as calling that candidate the official nominee. That only can happen at the convention. But late last month, Donald Trump had enough pledged delegates and enough public commitments from the unpledged delegates - and they have those in the Republican Party - to cross his threshold of 1,237 delegates. That's when the Associated Press and NPR and the other major news organizations started calling him the presumptive nominee.

MARTIN: And Hillary Clinton - we understand that she's pretty close to the number she needs. Will she be declared the presumptive nominee on Tuesday night?

ELVING: We expect so, yes, because today's vote in Puerto Rico - she's going to be, after that, only a handful of delegates away. And if you count all the pledged delegates from the primaries and caucuses up to now plus the public commitments from the unpledged Democratic delegates - some people call them superdelegates - that will mean she is so close that when the New Jersey polls close at 8 o'clock on Tuesday night, she will have hit her magic number of 2,383. Now it's a higher number than the Republicans because it's a larger convention. They have more delegates.

And that will be before we have heard any results from any of the other states that are voting on Tuesday, including California. But win or lose, she's going to add more delegates from all of those events because the Democrats always divide the delegate payoff proportionally to the vote.

MARTIN: Now we've been hearing from Bernie Sanders, who's been trying to get ahead of that storyline, saying that it is not legitimate if she's declared on Tuesday with superdelegates included. Let me just play a clip from what he said in California yesterday.


BERNIE SANDERS: At the end of the nominating process, no candidate will have enough pledged delegates to call the campaign a victory. They will be dependent upon superdelegates. In other words, the Democratic National Convention will be a contested convention.

MARTIN: So, Ron, help us understand. What is Bernie Sanders' argument here?

ELVING: He says that the superdelegates should not count toward a presumptive nomination because these people are not legally bound by any rule to actually vote for her. They just say they're going to. And he and his supporters point out that these people could still change their minds. They could still switch. And yes, they could. But so far, none of them has. And there are over 500 of them. And the only switch we're aware of in this campaign season was one from Sanders to Clinton. And yes, there were some in 2008, as we hear often. But there were really only about 30 who really switched from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, nothing like the kind of numbers that Sanders would need.

MARTIN: Ron, before we let you go, is there any discussion about eliminating superdelegates altogether because there's been so much discussion over the course of this campaign about the fairness of this and what role they actually play? So is there any discussion about eliminating superdelegates? Could that actually happen?

ELVING: It could happen, but it would happen prospectively. In other words, it would affect the 2020 process and the 2020 convention. The rules are the rules for this year, and they are going to hold. But they are going to probably have a lot of discussion and probably a vote at the Philadelphia convention in July about next time and about how superdelegates should be handled next time. They'll probably not eliminate them completely, but they might cut the overall number maybe by half.

MARTIN: That NPR's Ron Elving joining us from NPR West. Ron, thank you so much for joining us.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.