February 22, 2008

Supersized power

This explainer originally appeared in The Indian Express on February 22, 2008.

The competitiveness and closeness of the Democratic primary race makes it more riveting, and also means that the nomination now rests on which way the superdelegates swing. Superdelegates are the party’s political ‘insiders’ who make up about 20 per cent of the total delegate count and are free to make up their minds at the Democratic convention. Dhruva Jaishankar explains exactly why all eyes are now on the superdelegates

• What are superdelegates?

In the United States, superdelegate is a colloquial term for over 700 voting delegates at the Democratic National Convention who are not elected through state-level elections and not pledged to vote for a specific candidate. They constitute about one-fifth of the total delegates at the Convention. Formally called ‘unpledged party leader and elected official’ (PLEO) delegates, they are also frequently referred to as ‘automatic delegates’ or simply ‘unpledged delegates’. The superdelegate system was initiated following the 1980 presidential election, to allow the Democratic leadership to retain a greater say in determining the party’s nominee for president.

• Who are the superdelegates?

About half of the superdelegates are members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The other half include current and former elected leaders, including all Democratic members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and all Democratic state governors. They also include all former Democratic presidents, vice-presidents, speakers and minority leaders of the House of Representatives, majority leaders of the Senate, and chairs of the DNC. They range from former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, to 21-year-old university student (and DNC member) Jason Rae.

• Have superdelegates ever decided the party’s nomination?

The only case when the superdelegates’ vote proved crucial to determining the nomination was in 1984 when former Vice-President Walter Mondale lacked enough elected delegates to clinch the nomination, but had enough to secure a plurality over rival Gary Hart. In that instance, the superdelegates’ support for Mondale at the convention proved decisive, giving him what was ultimately a comfortable win. For every one of five presidential elections since, the nomination was clinched well before the convention.

• What is the current status of superdelegates in the nomination process?

At present, about 256 have made known their support for Hillary Clinton while approximately 170 have openly backed Obama. Over 280 have yet to side publicly with one or another. The determination of superdelegates has been further complicated by the fact that two states — Michigan and Florida — have been stripped of their delegates for holding early primaries, against party rules.

• How will the superdelegates vote if Obama and Clinton divide elected delegates roughly evenly?

This is the big question. Superdelegates can change their allegiances as late as the convention itself. As more superdelegates have supported Clinton than Obama, this naturally favours the latter. Obama has also gained much momentum recently following a string of electoral victories since ‘Super Tuesday’ on February 5. Already several African-American superdelegates who had earlier endorsed Clinton have switched their support to Obama. The Illinois senator also, at present, leads Clinton in total votes and number of elected delegates won. Several superdelegates may also choose to support the candidate winning their home states as a reflection of popular sentiment. This too will favour Obama, who has won 24 states to Clinton’s 11 (if one discounts her wins in Michigan and Florida). According to the New York Times, 79 superdelegates who support Clinton hail from states won by Obama, while only 34 Obama supporters are from states won by Clinton. These factors are likely to increase Obama’s chances of clinching the nomination, particularly if he were to retain a plurality of pledged delegates.