February 02, 2008

"Super Delegates" May Hold Balance of Power in the Democratic Party

After the American Century

This nomination process is not the result of simple voting, where the nominee is selected directly by the voters. Rather, voters select delegates, and they do so by district. In Nevada, for example, Obama got fewer votes than Hillary Clinton but won in more districts and so has more delegates (13-12). The same sort of thing happened in New Hampshire, where Obama may have lost the popular vote but won one more delegate (12-11). In Iowa, Obama got more votes than she did, but both ended up with the same number of delegates (18).  In South Carolina, Obama won both the popular vote and the most delegates (26-14). Based on those four contests, it seems obvious that Obama should be winning the delegate battle, with 69, vs. 55 for Hillary. 

However, only three out of every four delegates are selected in primaries and caucuses. When the 4049 delegates arrive at the Democratic Convention to select their candidate, 796 of them will be "super delegates." That is, they will be there by virtue of their office or past service to the party. For example, former President Bill Clinton is a super delegate, and so are sitting Democratic governors, Senators, mayors of major cities, and party members who hold seats in the House of Representatives, plus various others. These "super delegates" define the party establishment. They tend to favor the known over the unknown. As politicians, they all have debts and obligations, and it is more likely that they owe a favor or two to the candidates who are well-established. In other words, these elected politicians all know the Clintons, and many are in their political debt. 

Super delegates do not necessarily pledge their support to any candidate in advance, and many wait for the race to develop before backing someone. CNN has prepared a list which shows that when pledged super delegates are included, Hillary Clinton is well ahead, with 232 delegates, vs. only 158 for Obama. By my count, that means he has picked up 89 super delegates, while Hillary has gained 177, almost twice as many. No less than 59 of Hillary's super delegates come from just New York State and California. Will Hillary easily win because of her super delegate support? Perhaps not. For there is another way to look at these numbers. More than half of the super delegates are still up for grabs, either sitting on the fence (368) or committed to Edwards (62), who has dropped out. These 430 super delegates may hold the balance of power, should the primaries fail to give either Obama or Clinton 2025 delegates, the minimum necessary for nomination. 

So much has already happened in this campaign that no one would have predicted. Yet, presumably it is certain that the nominee will need at least 2025 delegates. (Though even here, what about Michigan and Florida and their discounted primaries?) To prevail, Obama will need to do more than narrowly win the popular vote. He probably has to defeat Clinton resoundingly at the polls before he can swing those 430 super delegates (insiders all), to his side. He cannot do it without insider support of this own. Ted Kennedy, who knows most super delegates by their first names, can play a crucial role in getting them to ride the Obama wave.