Matthew Nugen is not supposed to exist.
Mr. Nugen, Barack Obama’s 36-year-old national political director, is also a shadow operative charged with winning over individual superdelegates, something the Obama campaign is officially not interested in doing, since they also say that superdelegates should be guided by the will of voters instead of come-ons from campaigns.
The Obama campaign has thus far kept him out of the media spotlight, and when they caught wind of an interview with The Observer that he had arranged and confirmed via telephone and e-mail, Mr. Nugen vanished.
And yet he—along with an aggressive superdelegate-outreach program at the Obama campaign—is for real.
“Matt is the unassuming guy that you don’t realize he’s got stroke until you see Obama come in, and he is right there,” said Moses Mercado, an Obama supporter and superdelegate who is friends with Mr. Nugen.
“We don’t have the ex-president stuff, and it’s hard to get Obama to make some of the calls,” said Mr. Mercado. “So a lot of them will say, ‘Look, I’ll wait for the call from the senator,’ but you’ll get either [campaign manager David] Plouffe or Matt to make the call and seal the deal.”
“They have a two-pronged approach,” Tom Ochs, a Democratic consultant with the firm McMahon Squier Lapp, said about the Obama campaign. “Publicly, they don’t want superdelegates to overrule the will of the voters in the form of pledged delegates. Privately, they have built this insurance policy of superdelegates who they continue to roll out relentlessly, day after day. Matt is central to that effort.”
The Obama campaign’s painstakingly low-profile superdelegate counter is, in a way, the perfect symbol for their surreptitious superdelegate operation.
Mr. Nugen is an African-American political operative from St. Louis who worked on Joe Lieberman’s presidential campaign and then at the Democratic Leadership Council, before returning to the DNC, where he counted noses for Howard Dean’s successful 2005 bid for chairman.
Now Mr. Nugen and the Obama campaign are up against an effort headed by longtime Clinton loyalist and Democratic über-operative Harold Ickes; the Clinton team is counting on the Democratic VIP’s with an automatic seat at the convention to hand Mrs. Clinton the White House.
Ivan Holmes, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Oklahoma, knows what it is like to be courted by the Clinton campaign’s aggressive superdelegate outreach program.
First, he received a warm phone call from Bill Clinton. Then, Hillary Clinton called a couple days before the March 4 Ohio and Texas primaries.
“She said she thought it was going to go down to the end and that the superdelegates would decide it,” said Mr. Holmes. “Then she said, ‘You know, I did win in Oklahoma.’ She just made the statement that since she did so well, she hoped that I’d consider supporting her.”
After the candidate’s off-message appeal to his sense of loyalty to his state’s decision—the Clinton campaign has laid groundwork for the superdelegate push by encouraging them to decide independent of what their state’s voters do—Mr. Holmes received another call, just a few days ago, from a Clinton campaign staffer targeting his independent streak.
“She asked an interesting question,” Mr. Holmes said of the campaign staffer, whose name he said he did not remember. “If the pledged delegate difference was 50, 60 or 80 delegates, would that make a difference in who you voted for?’ I told her it wouldn’t and that I never vote on who I think is going to win.”
The Clinton campaign currently holds an estimated 255 committed superdelegates to Mr. Obama’s 214.
Mr. Nugen’s friends think he could give the Obama operation an edge.
“Matt’s an emerging Harold Ickes,” said Brad Queisser, vice president and managing director at the government relations firm mCapitol Management.
Mr. Queisser, a former DNC official, came to Washington from Nebraska in 1998 and met Mr. Nugen who was then working in the office of the secretary at the DNC.