Dozens of signs are placed strategically along the entrance to the National Hispanic Cultural Center. People with leaflets, stickers and large posters eagerly approach passersby, imploring them to select their candidate. But the folks here aren’t voting for someone to fill a public office. They’re choosing the delegates who will go to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where the party’s 2008 presidential nominee will be announced.
It begins simply enough.
Whether you're a registered Democrat or Republican, all that's required of you for a shot at going to your party's national convention is a form saying you'd like to go. From there, things get more complicated.
The election at the NHCC on Saturday, April 19, was one of three taking place in each of the state's congressional districts. Seventeen delegates are chosen at these events before every national convention. It's not just any Tom, Dick or Harriet that gets to pick the delegates. Only interested parties who voted in New Mexico's primary or caucus in March can be an elector.
Delegates are different than superdelegates, who can vote for whomever they'd like regardless of whether Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama won their state's primary. New Mexico has 12 superdelegates.
The state's Republican Party, which doesn't have superdelegates, will send 32 delegates and their alternates to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul Sept. 1 through 4. Twenty-nine of the 32 will be elected on Saturday, June 14, in Las Cruces, but, just like the Democrats, the Republicans don't let the general public decide who makes the trip. Instead, the delegates are selected by a group of party members who've been elected by registered Republicans to carry out the task. The New Mexico Republican Party chairman and the National Committee man and woman are automatically selected as delegates to the convention as well.
The competition among candidates is fierce in both parties. New Mexico Democratic Party Spokesperson Josh Geise says around 300 people expressed interest in being a delegate this year. New Mexico Republican Party Spokesperson Scott Darnell says his party just started accepting applications, but he expects there to be plenty of people excited about going to the convention. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Darnell says. "It's a chance for Republicans from all over the nation to rally very vocally around their candidate."
What do delegates get for all their time spent making signs, stickers and pins? For those who earn the right to come to their party's big event, it's a chance to see the biggest names in politics up close and personal.
"I was 30 feet from Sen. Barack Obama when he gave his great convention speech in 2004," says Kathy Duffy, president of the Democratic Women of New Mexico and former Democratic national delegate. "When I went home, I told all my friends he was the one to watch out for."
According to Ron Montoya, San Juan County Republican chairman and a national delegate alternate in 2004, the convention is a great place to gauge the party's mood. "Seeing it on TV doesn't tell you how people are really feeling at the convention," Montoya says. "It's also a good place for networking and meeting people all across the country doing the same things you are."
Are delegates rich, poor, young, old, powerful or unknown? The short answer is yes. "It's really a cross-section of the state," Geise says. "They're usually active within the party, but they come from all walks of life."
While some are longtime officeholders, Geise and Darnell both say the majority of delegates are not well-known. "Even those who have been elected to office have to run like everyone else," Duffy says. "It just takes passion for your party."
Once they're there, delegates at the convention get to sit on the convention floor to hear speeches, or they may attend meetings hosted by various interest groups.
There's also the matter of voting for the party's presidential candidate, but that's more of a symbolic ritual at both conventions. In 2004, all of the Democratic presidential candidates told their delegates to support Sen. John Kerry with a "voice vote" on the convention floor; Darnell says he expects Republican candidates to do the same this year for Sen. John McCain. It's still unclear who will win the Democratic nomination this year, but both Obama and Clinton have said they will support their party's nominee, even if it's not them.
Both Duffy and Montoya say they would not have a problem voting for a candidate who was not their first choice for the presidency. "It's about uniting your party for a common cause," Duffy says. "You want to make sure the rest of the country picks up on your energy."