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Not So Super

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 Denver convention--have been called "an obscure but powerful group," a "unique political force," and flatly "anti-democratic." Delegate-tracking scorecards such as CNN's are already counting them as part of each candidates' tallies. Last week, The New York Times examined the "invisible primary," while a recent Los Angeles Times analysis warned of "two campaigns unfolding simultaneously" among Democrats--one for ordinary voters, the other for their more super brethren. Hillary Clinton's advantage among superdelegates so far has become a critical part of the Clinton campaign's spin.

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 Iowa. Superdelegates are chosen based on prior service to the party. The group includes all the Democrats in Congress, former speakers of the house and minority leaders, the country's Democratic governors, locally elected DNC members, and a few civilians elected or appointed during the primary season. Party luminaries such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore also make the cut.

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 Iowa victory, chief strategist David Axelrod said, "We expect to see a great deal of movement to Obama from superdelegates in the coming days, seriously eroding the Clintons' existing advantage in this universe." Both Obama and Clinton are looking to press the perceived advantage of having high-profile support--especially now that John Edwards's previously pledged superdelegates are ripe for the picking. Obama surrogates like John Kerry and Ted Kennedy have reportedly been working the phones hard in recent weeks, and even Chelsea Clinton has gotten in on the fun.

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 Washington, D.C. and Northeastern states like New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. She also holds a 99-31 advantage among unelected superdelegates, longtime party members who may already have personal relationships with the Clintons.

Still, the fluidity of superdelegate allegiances undermines the case for their disproportionate influence. Though a handful of superdelegates have clear affinities--Hillary and Bill Clinton, as well as Clinton campaign operatives Harold Ickes and Terry McAuliffe, for example, aren't impartial--support is often soft until the day of the convention. A majority have stayed uncommitted so far, and even those who have already endorsed a candidate are still technically "unpledged." Furthermore, superdelegates follow the political tides--Clinton built a substantial lead among them when she led national polls throughout the summer, while several dozen superdelegates surged into Obama's camp after his Iowa victory. In 2004, superdelegates backpedaled from their endorsements of Dean, rallying around Kerry after he won early caucuses and primaries. (In most years, the also-rans symbolically turn over their delegates to the prospective nominee as well.

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 Clinton certainly holds a natural advantage here. If these allegiances hold, an up-or-down vote on the convention floor could easily tip in her favor. But if history is any guide, the odds of such a dramatic rescue for either campaign are slim--unanimity is a powerful force for the Democrats, and barring an absolute tie, superdelegates are unlikely to side against the primary-season winner, the peoples' choice.

Dayo Olopade is a reporter–researcher at The New Republic.

This story was updated on 2/7/08.