Superdelegates: Year One

[Analysis by Blog Editor Noah Nelson]

Faster than a speeding pundit? More powerful than a campaign bus? Able to leap exit poll takers in a single bound?


So just who are the superdelegates? What are their strange powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal voters? And why is it only the Democrats who have them?

Let’s start with the last question first, because in a sense the answer is: the Republicans actually do have superdelgates. They’re just don’t call them that. In the Republican party they are called unpledged delegates, which doesn’t sound as cool, but is a more accurate description of their status.

Delegates that are won in a primary election or caucus are considered “pledged.” When the party’s national convention comes around they are obligated to vote for the candidate they have pledged to support. When a member of either party goes to vote in a primary or a caucus, what they are actually doing is voting for the delegate they want to represent them by proxy at the convention.


Unpledged and superdelegates, on the other hand, are not bound by the will of the electorate.

They can do whatever they want. If every unpledged delegate of the GOP decided that they wanted to vote for Mitt Romney at the convention they could do that. They could vote for Al Gore… they could even vote for Bill Clinton, but he couldn’t run becuase he’s already served two terms. No way they’d do that anyway, but you get the point.

The super- and unpledged delegates are a throwback to an era when the parties didn’t trust the so-called “rank and file” members to know what was good for them. Maybe they still don’t, but the fear of turning voters off and spiliting the party is very much on the mind of the Democratic superdelegates. Which is way more than half of them are uncommitted and all of them want a clear winner to emerge in the primary elections before the convention comes around.

In neither party can the unpledged delegates determine the outcome of the primary election all by themselves. What they do have the power to do is break a virtual tie, pushing one candidate over the top if a clear winner is not determined by way of the pledged delegates. Within a few more contests the Democratic nomination is going to come down to exactly that.


So who are these superdelegates really? Where do they live? What’s their day job?

The last question is the easiest to answer: they’re politicians.

In the GOP the unpledged delegates are made up of party officials or are elected to stand as a delegate. Members of the national party committee and party chairs are given that power. The major difference is that, once again, they don’t have to commit to a candidate before the final vote.

The Democrats have way more unpledged delegates… which may explain how they manged to get themselves renamed “super” delegates. They are Democratic members of Congress, party officials, state governors, former Presidents and Vice Presidents and other party leaders. A good chunk of superdelegates are answerable to their own voters, and any convention shenanigans are likely to have real consequences for the political class.

So will we see a dramatic shift in the outcome of the Democratic race due to behind the scenes manipulations?

Not likely, the risks are too great, and the rewards too small to have party insiders exert influence at the cost of alienating voters in the November elections. With that being said, no one expected this to still be a hot race around Valentine’s Day. Surprises have become the rule.

For more Election 2008 breakdowns check out these articles:

HOW TO: Get Campaign Info 

The Glamorous World of Politics


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