Meet The Superdelegates: Many Congress Members Reluctant To Choose Between Obama, Clinton

As most have heard by now, superdelegates could sway the presidential election. They're the group of Democratic politicians and party elites who don't have to align their vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama with that of voters at this summer's Democratic National Convention.

And with the race so close and the term superdelegates on the tip of everyone's tongue, a tidal wave of worst-case scenarios has been concocted. Some worry that Clinton, who has consistently been ahead in superdelegates, will "steal" the race, while others fear that the party will split if the superdelegates support the candidate who doesn't earn the popular vote.

But one seemingly forgotten fact is that many of the superdelegates--more than half--are elected officials. And elected officials have to win elections to keep their jobs. "They are not relishing the task of picking between Obama and Clinton," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "This is a chore that could only cause them problems."

Many politicians may find themselves torn between conflicting allegiances to voters within their state and the tide of national preference. And members of Congress are in an even more awkward position than the Democratic governors because they serve alongside both candidates on Capitol Hill.

When superdelegates were first put to the test in 1984--Walter Mondale clinched the nomination over Gary Hart--many saw their position as a surefire way to attend the convention, not sway it.

"I remember the superdelegates saying to me, 'I thought by accepting this post I would simply ensure myself a seat at the convention,'" Sabato recalls. "They all told me they'd gladly give away that power; they didn't want it."

Superdelegates generally pledge their votes by giving endorsements, and they can change their minds at any time. For example, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia had backed Clinton early in the race, but today reports said he was switching to Obama. The Illinois senator had won 66 percent of the vote in Georgia. However, his spokeswoman denied reports of a switch.

Tad Devine, Mondale's delegate counter and Al Gore's chief political consultant, in a New York Times editorial last week, urged superdelegates not to support a candidate this early in the race.

"If the superdelegates determine the party's nominee before primary and caucus voters have rendered a clear verdict, Democrats risk losing the trust that we are building with voters today," Devine wrote. "The perception that the votes of ordinary people don't count as much as those of political insiders, who get to pick the nominee in some mythical back room, could hurt our party for decades to come."

Indeed, many members of Congress are opting to hold off.

Of the 48 Democratic senators who are eligible to vote as superdelegates at the convention, which includes Washington, D.C.'s "Shadow Senators" Michael Brown and Paul Strauss, more than half have yet to publicly endorse a candidate. Twelve have pledged their support to Clinton, and nine have endorsed Obama. Among those not endorsing are Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, who both were running for the presidency earlier in the primary season and have since dropped out.

A higher percentage of the 216 eligible House superdelegates have endorsed, with about 73 going for Clinton and 59 choosing Obama. Of those who endorsed, many endorsed regionally. For example, most of the representatives from Illinois are backing Obama, while all the New York delegation and almost all of neighboring New Jersey's representatives support Clinton.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, another former presidential contender, has not endorsed a candidate, and voters in his home state of Ohio won't go to the polls until March 4. He is joined by about 84 members of the House who have yet to pledge their support. The one holdout in the New Jersey continget is Rep. Rush Holt. "He has said that he is neutral, and he's still hearing from both campaigns," says a spokesman.

And many legislators are likely to remain neutral as the race stays neck and neck. "To me it's more significant how many haven't made a decision," Sabato says. "I guarantee that the vast majority of them are hoping the party's voters will make the choice for them."

By Nikki Schwab