The Democratic presidential race now turns on the 794 superdelegates, who can ratify or veto the voters' will. What will they do? To track the players in the Democrats' elitist endgame, an unprecedented campaign is now using the Internet to expose every last superdelegate.
Mark Myers, a technology analyst, music blogger and Floridian who did not vote in the state's primary, came up with the idea for an online hub where people could "shine a light" on this arcane process. Backed by a coalition of blogs and good-government websites, the Superdelegate Transparency Project (STP) posts political, professional and personal information about the people who will ultimately decide the nomination. In its first two months, the nonprofit site drew more than 160,000 visitors.
The project is "open source"--meaning that most of the onerous research is conducted by an army of self-appointed volunteers. They scour public records for information, posting it directly online and call superdelegates for interviews, waving only their "citizen media" credentials. About 215 unpaid researchers report to Amanda Michel, a former online campaign organizer who now works for the Huffington Post. "We're not trying to influence the end outcome," she says. But if the superdelegates can essentially pick the nominee, the public has a right to learn more about "who they are and why they're chosen." Transparency is STP's only stated goal. It does not back a particular candidate or advocate a metric for how the superdelegates should vote.
Nannette Isler, a Long Island pediatrician, volunteered for STP after learning about superdelegates' voting power, which she found unfair. She says the site gives "ordinary citizens a greater insight into the nomination process." Isler wrote profiles and conducted an hourlong interview with Stephen Fontana, a DNC member and State Representative in Connecticut. Fontana, who read about STP on blogs, says he feels an obligation to respond to "Democratic activists who are trying to make the process more transparent." That makes him an unusually open insider. So far only 15 percent of superdelegates have agreed to talk, according to the Huffington Post.
Not every superdelegate, however, is ducking the discussion. One new blog aims to tell the superdelegates' side of the story. At MrSuper.org, an anonymous superdelegate defends his fellow party officials against charges of elitism. After providing information to confirm his real identity by telephone, Mr. Super said the characterization of superdelegates as "unelected insiders" was inaccurate, since most run in local party elections and are answerable to constituents. He thinks sites like STP might even be more influential than the presidential campaigns, precisely because some superdelegates listen to their constituents more than to the famous politicos campaigns deploy to make their case.
Either way, Mr. Super's blog cracks open the door to the smoke-filled room by letting readers join the conversation. On April 2 a post waded into the fierce debate over whether superdelegates must vote in accordance with the voters' will, in response to a reader query. First Mr. Super dodged, saying his role required a "balancing act" of applying his views and "supporting the will of the people." The post drew thoughtful comments, then he responded several times and a civil debate ensued.
Conor Kenny, an STP editor, contends that Internet activism is not only exposing the superdelegates' "old model" of decision-making but also helping redefine their obligations. "The cultural phenomenon of open-source information" enables voters to make more informed demands of their party, he says, and to "hold the superdelegates accountable" to represent their constituents. And next to every superdelegate's name, the STP lists whether they "agree" with the voters in their district.
The superdelegate debate continues to play out across cyberspace and the entire party. More than 400,000 activists have already backed the democratic standard for superdelegates through an online petition from MoveOn.org (which endorsed Obama). Prominent Democrats unaffiliated with either campaign, like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, proclaim that superdelegates must ratify the voters' will. Even some pro-Clinton superdelegates are echoing that position, like Representatives John Lewis and David Lewis, who withdrew Clinton endorsements after their districts overwhelmingly backed Obama. Whether driven by voters or the spotlight of Internet activism, a democratic standard augurs more attrition for Clinton than Obama. That's because twenty-two superdelegate politicians backing Clinton hail from areas Obama has won, while only twelve Obama backers face the reverse quandary, according to Congressional Quarterly.
Cementing a democratic standard for the Democratic nomination is an undeniable improvement. It is also, by definition, a departure from the old rules, which granted superdelegates independent power. They would never have to vote, after all, if the only valid choice was to ratify primary results. By democratizing the superdelegates' duty, Democrats may have found the backstop to keep from sliding toward another 1968, when the convention nomination process split the party and tarnished the nominee. After the last primaries end, it appears, there will be tremendous bottom-up pressure on superdelegates to uphold the popular will. Once activists ensure that superdelegates are reduced to a technicality, the party can make 2008 their finale, amending the rules to abolish superdelegates, finally removing elite supervision from the Democratic primaries.