This election season, "superdelegate" endorsements have been presented by the press as a critical metric in the race for the Democratic nomination for president. The 796 superdelegates--party insiders who will make up 20 percent of the 4,049 votes at the
But the hype surrounding superdelegate endorsements masks a more mundane reality: They don't really matter. Definitely not right now, and probably not at all. The Democratic National Committee officially defines a superdelegate as "unpledged"--meaning that his or her vote is purely theoretical until the convention. In fact, media hyperventilation aside, the average superdelegate's vote in their own state's primary or caucus is likely to be the only significant one they cast. Since they were instated in 1982, superdelegate convention votes have never reversed the verdict of the party's voters. The prefix "super" refers to superdelegates' freedom at the convention to vote for whomever they choose; normal delegates are bound to the results of state primaries and caucuses. That means that the votes of sixteen individual superdelegates theoretically wield the same weight as the approximately 91,000 voters who chose the victor in
The built-in prominence of Democratic superdelegates gives their collective judgment considerable heft, and an early advantage among these leaders can translate into momentum among voters as well. At this point in 1984 and in 1992, eventual nominees Walter Mondale and Bill Clinton were each winning the superdelegate count handily. Michael Dukakis, the front-runner in 1988, was reported to have made an average of ten calls a day to influential superdelegates, ensuring his support at the convention that year. In early 2004, Howard Dean's campaign manager heralded his superdelegate lead as evidence of an establishment warming to his "outsider" candidacy. (It didn't last.) This year, the race for establishment credibility has taken on similar significance. After Obama's
With many superdelegates, their voting status at the convention is just a minor part of why the campaigns are wooing them so fervently. But in the same way that a string of high-profile endorsements of Obama from red-state Democrats has been interpreted as a sign of his crossover appeal, examining the roster of superdelegates who have endorsed so far is revealing of larger dynamics in the party. Hillary Clinton has garnered the most support among women and Hispanic superdelegates, and is showing strongly with those from
But let's say that the Clinton-Obama race remains dead-even, even after votes are in. The 350 or so superdelegates who have already pledged their support to a candidate are unlikely to jump ship, but the truly "unpledged" will face increasing pressure to make an affirmative decision. Of course, both candidates will continue their attempts to sway superdelegates, though
This story was updated on 2/7/08.