The Deal with the Superdelegates


The Democratic primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont this Tuesday (March 4) were crucial for the presidential campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton. Though Senator Barack Obama won Vermont-which was expected-Clinton swept Rhode Island and Ohio, and, much to many people’s surprise, also won the Texas primary (at the time this article went to press, the Texas caucus was too close to call). Clinton has been quoted as saying that her “campaign has turned a corner.”

Clinton’s campaign may have turned a corner, but battle for the Democratic nomination is far from over, as Obama supporters are quick to note. Both candidates are already geared up for Wyoming’s primary on Saturday, March 8 and Mississippi’s primary on Tuesday, March 11. After that, the next big event is Pennsylvania’s primary on April 22. And the race could stretch into June and beyond (South Dakota’s primary is June 3).

Nevertheless, neither Clinton nor Obama can secure the nomination without the support of the superdelegates and both are hard at work at courting the roughly 800 Democratic superdelegates (over a hundred whom have not yet committed to either candidate). So, what’s the deal with the superdelegates? Here’s a quick explanation.

First of all, the Democratic party doesn’t even call them superdelegates. But since everyone else does, so will we. The superdelegates act as free agents – they are people who get to be a delegate at the convention without being pledged to vote for a particular candidate. Their votes don’t count anymore than the regular delegates, but because they aren’t pledged, they can vote for either candidate, regardless of their state’s popular vote. And, thus, the courting begins.

Numbering about 800, the superdelegates make up about one-fifth of the total delegates. The superdelegates are composed of the members of the DNC, all current Democratic members of Congress, former Democratic congressional leadership, former Democratic presidents, current Democratic governors, and a smattering of other people involved in the party leadership.

The superdelegates originated when the party switched to a more democratic means of choosing their nominee in the early 1970s. Before then, the nominee was essentially decided by the party strongarms. When the party adopted a more grassroots approach in the 70s, it encountered some unexpected results (i.e. disastrous 1972 election). Accordingly, it implemented the superdelegates as a safety measure.

The basic premise behind the superdelegates is that they are people who will have to run on the same ticket as the nominee and, hence, should have a voice in the nomination process. It is also presumed that they will guide that year’s party platform and serve as a check to make sure something doesn’t get into the platform that goes drastically against the party’s principles. While superdelegates can choose to vote for whomever they want, lots of them do choose to endorse a particular candidate (there is a decent list on wikipedia of who has endorsed who so far). And, obviously, the elected officials are under enormous pressure to vote for the most popular candidate of their constituency.

After 41 primaries and caucuses, the delegate count is within roughly two percent (less than 100 delegates). It is the superdelegates that hold one of the major bargaining chips in this race and both Clinton and Obama undoubtedly will continue courting them until the very end.

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