As Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) continues to enjoy a surge of momentum generated by 11 consecutive primary and caucus election victories over rival Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), questions persist over the role Democratic superdelegates will play in determining the party's eventual nominee.
The approximately 796 unpledged party leaders and elected official delegates (PLEO delegates), who are free to cast their own votes at the Democratic National Convention in August, could play the role of tiebreaker if neither Obama nor Clinton emerges carrying the magic number of 2,025 pledged delegates. Currently, Clinton leads Obama in the superdelegate count, 241-181, according to a recent Associated Press survey.
UC Davis professor emeritus of political science Edmond Costantini said he has never seen a Democratic nominating contest marked by such pronounced deadlock.
"My offhand recollection is [the superdelegates] have never been decisive," he said.
There has never been a scenario in which a candidate was pushed to the nomination on the strength of superdelegate support alone, he added.
The superdelegate rule was established following the 1980 election in which there was a perception among party leaders that they had largely been left out of deciding the Democratic presidential ticket. This was after changes had been made to allow greater public participation -- a response to previous elections which were decided largely by party leaders, Costantini said.
"The notion was, in addition to the primaries and caucuses, we ought to have ex officio positions opened up," he said. "That's basically what the superdelegates are all about."
Not bound in any way to support a candidate even if they make an endorsement announcement, superdelegates normally do not have much difficulty in choosing who they support, Costantini said.
"I think usually the process is one out of which a single candidate emerges as the obvious nominee by the time of the convention. Consequently there is very little angst about how they will vote," he said.Theoretically, superdelegates could become involved, and any possibility of a Clinton nomination under the premise that Obama receives more pledge delegates could "cause a stir" in the party, Costantini said.
"The most likely possibility is Obama is the obvious winner once we end the primary and caucus season, at which point the superdelegates will be encouraged to not change the outcome," he said.
Other more unlikely scenarios include Obama winning the nomination flat out - an event discouraged by the fact that all Democratic primaries allocate delegates proportionately -- or Clinton doing well enough in remaining states to declare a virtual tie in pledged delegates, thus validating her claim to be the nominee, Costantini said.
"There might be a clear path to the nomination for Obama, but not for Clinton," he said.
The superdelegates range from weary to enthusiastic, as a result of public intrigue created around voting anxiety.
"I'm tired of these phone calls," said Maria Echaveste, former White House deputy chief of staff under the second Clinton administration and current part-time lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Law. A member on the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee, Echaveste is one of California's 66 superdelegates.
The superdelegate system is in place because of the need for experienced members of the party to contribute to the election of the nominee, Echaveste said.
"I think it reflects that there are party leaders... that have a breadth of experience that the party wants to be able to tap," she said.
Echaveste said she has no reservations regarding the legitimacy of a system that could potentially alter he decision of a majority of voters.
Echavaste said she has decided to support Clinton because of what she described as a "depth of experience" that would help her win a general election against the Republican nominee and govern the country in the face of "serious challenges."First District Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA) is a superdelegate who threw his support behind Clinton on Jan. 14, well before his constituency voted in the state's Feb. 5 primary election.
"It's exciting that we have two fantastic and historic candidates who have generated an incredible energy across our country, bringing out millions of new voters," he said in a statement directed toward his communications director, Anne Warden.
"Our congressional district, like the country, is divided as to which candidate should lead our party in November," Thompson said. "However, I don't believe superdelegates will decide the nominee. I will continue to participate in the nomination process and will support our nominee 100 percent."
Obama ended up receiving more votes than Clinton in Thompson's district by a margin of less than 1,000 votes (47,597-46,811).
Steven Ybarra, a Sacramento-based superdelegate who heads the voting rights committee of the Democratic National Committee Hispanic Caucus, said he was unenthusiastic about the nominating process as a whole.
Ybarra said he questions the process because of what he saw in the early January Iowa caucus, which often serves as an indicator for which presidential hopefuls are likely to win their party's nomination.
"This whole nomination process sucks," he said. "Why is it that 100,000 white people in Iowa get to determine who the nominee is?" While eager to "argue the position of California at the national level," Ybarra said the superdelegate system would be arcane if there were a primary process in every state, instead of caucuses in some, which limits participation.
As of now, Ybarra said he is uncommitted primarily because "neither candidate has made a commitment as to what they will do with the Latino voter once they get the nomination."
Specifically, Ybarra said Obama and Clinton would have to make several commitments before receiving his support, including a national voter registration project aimed at the Latino voter and aiding in the citizenship process of Mexican Americans, which would increase the number of registered Latino voters in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Nevada.
As for the issue of whether his assembly of superdelegates may shift the Democratic contest one way or the other, Ybarra said he is ready to influence the outcome.
"I hope it's me," he said. "I hope I'm the tiebreaker."
© 2008 The California Aggie via U-WIRE