Ally Klimkoski

April 17

Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are battling it out down to the wire; only a few state Democratic primary contests remain. And because of that, the so-called superdelegates may very well be the deciding factor among the split primary electorate.

So who and what are superdelegates, and how influential will they be?

Superdelegates are everyone from party leaders like Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean to experienced elected officials and unelected Democratic party members.

Regular delegates are elected to represent the popular vote from primary elections or caucuses in each state. So, if the people of North Carolina vote 60 percent for Barack Obama and 40 percent for Hillary Clinton, then 60 percent of the delegates will go to Obama and 40 percent will go to Clinton. But superdelegates get to choose whichever candidate they wish, regardless of how their states vote. Most, like Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey Jr., declare their intentions by endorsing a candidate. Still, who superdelegates are and what they do is often unclear.

According to SourceWatch’s Congresspedia, superdelegates:

  • Are selected by virtue of their status as current or former elected officeholders and party officials.
  • Are ex-officio delegates like union officials and interest group representatives that were not elected.
  • Are free to support any candidate for nomination regardless of any endorsements they may have made.
  • Are officially known as “unpledged party leader and elected official delegates” (PLEO); “superdelegate” is an informal term for PLEO.
  • Play a major role in a “brokered convention” in which delegate votes do not establish a clear party favorite.

Based on the description above, we know that superdelegates are specially regarded members at a political convention, so when do their “special” abilities come into play?

Think of it this way: Superdelegates are like teachers and principals at your school, official intermediaries who help resolve student issues. Delegates are like the student body as a whole. For instance, if a slim majority of students wanted more vegetarian options in the cafeteria but an almost equal amount wanted meat only, how would the issue be resolved? Although the students have more at stake and outnumber teachers and principals, the latter’s opinions and guidance would break the stalemate. Superdelegates are like official tiebreakers.

Currently, Democratic voters have not expressed a clear majority in primaries and caucuses and remain split between Clinton and Obama. Barring a landslide in the remaining state primary contests, superdelegates may play a prominent role at the Democratic Party Convention, held on August 25 in Denver, Colorado. If superdelegates decide or “broker” the presidential nomination, it may appear contrary to the popular primary vote. Hence, voters are wary of the decisions these officials may make.

Most politicians or Democratic party members aren’t opposed to certain elected officials having “super” status; a notable exception is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has called for a reduced superdelegate role at the convention.

What’s Bigger than a Superdelegate?

Within superdelegates there are super-duper delegates, those who have influence over other superdelegates. Kari Chisholm at MyDD, a group blog designed to discuss campaigns, the progressive movement, and political power, ranked uncommitted superdelegates to examine who are the most powerful.

Chisholm says, “Former presidents and vice presidents get big points, as do congressional leaders. Senators were valued slightly more than state governors, who were valued slightly more than members of Congress, who were valued more than DNC members and other folks. Members of Congress in tough swing districts, or those running for the US Senate, were valued slightly higher. Being from a swing state counted extra, and being from a big state also counted extra.”

Not surprisingly, Chisholm ranks the top five most powerful uncommitted superdelegates as former VP Al Gore, former President Jimmy Carter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and DNC Chairman Gov. Howard Dean.

But here is one superdelegate you might not expect:

By the Numbers

The 2008 Democratic Convention Watch Blog shows 794 total superdelegates, which consists of 718 regular and 76 unpledged add-ons. They all contribute to the total 4,049 delegates, but the candidate that obtains 2,025 total delegates first is considered the nominee.

This complex system began after the 1968 Democratic Convention, which turned into a public-relations disaster following a huge fight between different party factions divided over the Vietnam War. The Democratic Party called for immediate reform of the primary process for the 1972 elections, and formed the McGovern-Fraser Commission.

But there were problems. The popular vote favored Hubert Humphrey in the primaries, but Sen. George McGovern (head of the commission to reform the system) ran a grassroots campaign to get national convention delegates to vote for him. In the end, delegates chose McGovern, a candidate not supported by the majority of people who voted in the primary elections. As a result, in the general election, the electorate voted for Republican Richard Nixon and McGovern lost.

Years later, delegate math is still complicated, and surrounded by spin from campaigns and media. Chris Bowers at Openleft wrote a helpful Myths and Facts piece to help voters understand. Bowers says, “Obama leads pledged delegates by 6.0 percent with only 17.4 percent remaining.”

According to CNN, the democratic delegate count stands at Obama: 1,629 (1414 pledged and 215 superdelegates) and Clinton: 1,486 (1243 pledged and 243 superdelegates). CBS and the Associated Press have slightly differing numbers. The 2008 Democratic Convention is also charting the superdelegate tally (pictured, right) on their blog.

Respect the Youth

The Young Democrats, along with a number of youth-friendly organizations and bloggers, have lobbied on behalf of young delegates to the DNC for the last two years. It came as a shock when many young Democratic party volunteers in California were purged by the Clinton and Obama campaigns from the list of potential national party delegate nominees.

The Boston Globe reported that most of the cutting was done by Obama. His campaign dropped about 900 potential delegates, compared to about 50 excluded on Clinton’s side.

Roger Salazar, a Democratic operative running as a Clinton delegate, told the Globe, “They want to make sure the people who are running for delegate for their candidate are going to stay true to that candidate.”

Following this delegate-cut controversy, the Obama campaign later reinstated the young people originally taken off the list. But, as reported by Mike Connery on Future Majority, there remain further questions about people in other states, as well as at-large delegates, who haven’t been finalized.

That hasn’t stopped some young Democrats from asserting their participatory rights.

Convention Bound

Jason Croucher, a 24-year-old Osage City, Kansas Councilman, announced his intention to run for a delegate position for Hillary Clinton. When asked if he was scared to run against people who had invested twice as many years and thousands more dollars into his state party, he replied enthusiastically, “Yes!”

Croucher realizes the system doesn’t favor his inclusion but added, “In an honest democratic process it should never be about age or money. I deserve to be there as much as they do. And if we really want to build the party, my generation needs more attention than we’re getting.”

It’s clear from Croucher’s example that young people care about delegates, superdelegates and, ultimately, the Democratic presidential nomination itself. Youth aren’t on the sidelines in 2008; the way things are going, many of today’s young leaders may number among future superdelegates and reshape the election process in years to come.

Find out how to lobby your local superdelegate to support your presidential candidate of choice at Lobby Delegates.

For more information, NPR’s Backroom Primary series profiles currrent superdelegates.

Ally Klimkoski has been a staff in numerous races from presidential campaigns to city council races. Ally also consults and provides trainings to interest groups and activist organizations nationwide. Ally is especially interested in global human rights issues and the ever-increasing wage disparity in the United States.