Who Are the Superdelegates?


Posted Feb 17, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Who Are the Superdelegates?

The close race for delegates between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (NY) and Barack Obama (IL) has created commotion over the role of superdelegates. Yet, many of us are left wondering who these superdelegates are and how much power they actually have in determining the Democratic nominee.

Superdelegates are elected by the party and are not bound to vote according to election results in their states. They are officially designated as “unpledged party leaders and elected official delegates” and will constitute about one-fifth (796) of the total number of delegates (4,090) to the Democratic National Convention in August. Superdelegates are comprised of members of Congress, governors, other former and current party officials and officeholders, as well as grassroots activists of the Democratic Party.

The debate over superdelegates centers on the fact that they are not democratically elected, yet they are able to control a substantial number of votes needed to decide a nominee. They are viewed as party elites who maintain control of the nomination process with the ability to vote irrespective of the candidate chosen by voters.

So how does it work? Superdelegates have free reign to choose any candidate in their Party - and can change their decision - for the Democratic nomination. Ordinary delegates, however, are committed to a candidate based on voter results from their state. Of the nearly 300 superdelegates who have already committed to a candidate, Clinton leads Obama roughly by a 2-to-1 ratio, according to numerous counts.

CNN reports that former president Bill Clinton (a superdelegate himself) and members of the Obama campaign have been working aggressively for months to court the superdelegates, drawing on old loyalties in order to gain support for their respective candidate. Current unpledged superdelegates include former Democratic presidential candidates such as Governor Bill Richardson (NM), Senator Joseph Biden (DE) and Senator Christopher Dodd (CT), who are becoming increasingly sought after by the Democratic candidates for their endorsements.

In the event that Clinton and Obama arrive in Denver for the Party’s nominating convention with roughly equal numbers of pledged delegates, superdelegates could make the difference in which candidate becomes the Party’s nominee. Speculation is on the rise about what would happen if Obama were to receive a greater number of votes, but Clinton was able to secure support from the majority of the superdelegates. The question then would be how representative would such a vote be of the will of Democratic voters as a whole?

Many superdelegates themselves contend that the Democratic Party nomination process must remain democratic, and that voters themselves should decide between Clinton and Obama. Donna Brazile, CNN political analyst and manager to former vice president Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000, is one such superdelegate opposed to this system.

“If 795 of my colleagues decide this election, I will quit the Democratic Party,” said Brazile. “I feel very strongly about this.”

The now controversial superdelegate rule emerged in response to a change in the Party’s policy following the 1968 Democratic National Convention. During the 1970s, the Democratic Party reduced the control of the Party leaders by making conventions more open to grassroots Democratic activists who no longer had to compete with ranking Party officials on the Convention floor. However, the superdelegate rule was implemented after the 1980 election to encourage greater activism of leading Democratic politicians, who felt that their role in the 1970s was diminished, ultimately weakening the Democratic ticket.

Among the superdelegates, 411 are DNC members active in their state, 259 are Democratic members of Congress, 27 are Democratic governors, 23 are distinguished Party leaders (which include former Democratic presidents and vice presidents, and leaders of the House and Senate), and 76 are add-ons. With more than half of superdelegates remaining unpledged until now, the Clinton and Obama campaigns have taken to courting these Democratic Party leaders for support.

The road to August is long but the candidates are working quickly to secure endorsements before the Convention. Amidst all the politics, however, emerge larger questions about representation and the effectiveness of such an electoral system. In many respects, this has already been an historic election year that has mobilized voters despite challenges facing the public’s role in nominating the next president.

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