Meet The Superdelegates: Clinton, Obama Fight For The Party Elite

Forget hanging chads or swift boating; the buzzword this election cycle is "superdelegates," the Democratic politicians and party officials who get to cast a vote for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama at this summer's Democratic National Convention in Denver.

These superdelegates (there are 794 of them as of today) could matter if the race remains close as the Democratic candidates vie for the 2,025 delegates needed to win the party's nomination. If neither candidate gets the majority needed to win the nomination, superdelegates will be the tiebreaker.

So who are these superdelegates?

Superdelegates are Democratic governors, members of Congress, Democratic ex-presidents, and members of the Democratic National Committee. There are around 800 of them, but the total number can change up until the convention. Monday the count changed when Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos died. What distinguishes superdelegates from what the Democrats call pledged delegates is that they are not bound to a candidate by their state's primary or caucus results. And they can switch candidates at any time. "Any commitments they are making at this point are tentative," explains Northeastern University political science Prof. William Mayer. "There is nothing that says a superdelegate who comes out for Clinton can't change his or her mind later."

Superdelegates make up about 20 percent of the total delegates at the convention. The closer the race, the more important they become.

The way superdelegates pledge their support for a candidate is normally to endorse that politician publicly. When Sen. Ted Kennedy backed Obama at American University before Super Tuesday, he also verbally committed to giving his convention vote to the Illinois Democrat, even though his state went to Clinton. When Clinton was given the nod by Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, she not only earned street cred in his delegate-rich state but also potentially earned his superdelegate vote as well.

And because of party rules, there are all sorts of interesting people who are superdelegates:

--"Billary" is a superdelegate (well, two superdelegates), since Senator Clinton is a member of Congress and her husband is a former Democratic president of the United States. They both get a vote. Jimmy Carter gets a vote, too.

--Obama is a senator and thus a superdelegate and can vote for himself.

--Many of the candidates' former competitors are superdelegates. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Chris Dodd, Sen. Joe Biden, and Gov. Bill Richardson all get a vote at the convention.

--While Washington, D.C., residents grumble about "taxation without representation," plastering the phrase on their license plates because their congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, doesn't have a vote in Congress, she does get to cast her vote as a superdelegate. The nation's capital has more superdelegates than pledged delegates voting at the convention.

--The 20-somethings who lead the College Democrats of America and the Young Democrats of America are being heavily courted by the candidates because they too have superdelegate votes as part of the Democratic National Committee.

--Sen. Joe Lieberman would have gotten to vote as a superdelegate; however, because he publicly endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain, Democratic Party rules now ban him from voting for a Democrat at the convention.

Superdelegates came about in 1982 because party leaders wanted to exercise more control over the nomination process. Having superdelegates would ensure that members of the Democratic Party had some weight in case the Democratic voters picked a dud, as they did in 1972 when anti-Vietnam War liberal Sen. George McGovern won the nomination and not much else. They would also prevent another Jimmy Carter, whom party leaders viewed as an ineffective president because Carter wasn't friendly with the major figures in te party, according to Mayer. They hoped to force candidates like Carter to get to know the party during the nomination fight and therefore build up loyalty before taking office.

"They were a bit controversial when they were put into effect," says Mayer. "In a party that is obsessed with an appearance of democracy, they give more power to party leaders...the Democrats are not an obvious party to endorse those kinds of ideas."

While the percentage of superdelegates increased throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, there were some efforts to get rid of them, according to Mayer. They remained mostly because they didn't have much of an effect on the outcome of the races.

But in 1984, superdelegates had an impact. Walter Mondale put out a call to superdelegates when he was 40 votes shy of clinching the Democratic nomination. He got the votes and the nomination.

This year, pundits have speculated on a worst-case scenario, in which the Democratic Party splits after one candidate grabs the popular vote but the other wins the nomination thanks to the superdelegates. However, superdelegate Michael Cryor, the Maryland Democratic Party chair, thinks they're not that super.

"Superdelegates for the most part are elected officials, and they are coming from districts where they have to respond to their voter base," he says. "I don't think people are going to independently be inconsistent with the trend set by the country and by their districts."

By Nikki Schwab