Democratic candidates New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama have each won contests in a number of states, but what really matters is how many delegates they accumulate for the Democratic Party's National Convention in Denver in August.
The magic number of delegates needed to clinch the presidential nomination is 2,025. But neither candidate has gotten anywhere near that number in state voting. If that continues, it could eventually fall to so-called superdelegates to decide the Democratic race.
The 796 superdelegates make up nearly 20 percent of the overall Democratic delegation this year. They are members of Congress, governors, party elders and activists. Party officials created superdelegates in the early 1980s so situations such as a deadlocked convention could be resolved by party insiders, said nominations expert Henry Brady of the University of California at Berkeley.
"There was a concern that somehow there wasn't enough adult supervision actually by the rest of the party, and so one way to get more of the party politicos and pros into the process was to create these superdelegates," Brady said.
More than half of the superdelegates have already endorsed either Clinton or Obama. Because Clinton has snagged more endorsements, she is slightly ahead of Obama in the total delegate tally — even though he actually won more regular, pledged delegates. Both are assiduously courting undecided superdelegates such as Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
"I think the superdelegates will pretty much reflect what the voters have done," Brown said. "I think by August, one of the candidates will have begun to get momentum and have a substantial lead. I think the superdelegates will, in all likelihood, as we should, reflect that."
And if that does not happen?
Brown won't say when he will make an endorsement. But another senator, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, has already backed Clinton; he wants this race decided before it gets to the convention, although he is not sure that is possible this year.
"I don't think we want to go back to those wheeling, dealing, smoke-filled back-room days," Nelson said. "Right now, it looks like that's the only choice."
It's a choice that Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar also thinks should be made before the convention. She has yet to endorse anyone.
"I will not go through the summer — I can tell you that — without endorsing a candidate. I'm not a big believer in smoke-filled rooms," she said.
Obama told reporters Friday that the superdelegates should be guided by the results of the primaries and caucuses, saying, "My strong belief is that if we end up with the most states and the most pledged delegates from the most voters in the country, that it would be problematic for the political insiders to overturn the judgment of the voters."
But Obama added that superdelegates should consider who is best able to defeat Republican John McCain in November.
Clinton told reporters Monday that superdelegates should exercise independent judgment: "You can look at this state-by-state and see that there are a lot of people in states that I've won who support him, a lot of people in states that he won that support me. That's what superdelegates are supposed to do."
If anyone knows the sting of a superdelegate vote, it is former Sen. Gary Hart. Today he is an Obama supporter, but in 1984, when he ran for president, neither he nor Walter Mondale had won a majority of delegates going into the Democratic convention.
"I think virtually every superdelegate voted for Walter Mondale. In the teeth of polls the weekend before the convention, showing that Fritz ran 15 to 17 points behind Reagan and I ran 4 to 5 points behind Reagan, they still voted for Mondale, and Mondale lost very badly," Hart said.
If superdelegates must break a stalemate this year, it is unclear how bound these supposedly free agents will feel to any promises they have made to either candidate.
Superdelegate Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) is also a Sergeant Major in the Army National Guard.
Courtesy of Rep. Tim Waltz
Courtesy of Rep. Tim Waltz
Unpledged GOP Delegates
Republicans do not technically have superdelegates. They do have 463 unpledged delegates that function in a similar way, however. Of those, 123 are members of the Republican National Committee. Though they are not bound by the electoral decisions in their state or district, they are likely committed to a particular candidate.
Former president Bill Clinton, former vice president Al Gore, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and former president Jimmy Carter are all superdelegates.
There is something magical about the term, "superdelegate," as if it's a representative with superhuman powers who might fly in at the last minute to save the election.
This is not totally far from the truth. Unless, of course, you don't approve of how the political superheroes use their special abilities. (Or, if you are a Republican. Technically, there aren't any superdelegates in the GOP).
Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama emerged from Super Tuesday neck and neck, separated by less than 100 delegates by most counts. This suggests — if the race continues to be similarly tight — that the technically uncommitted superdelegates could impact the final outcome.
If you don't know what a superdelegate is, don't feel bad. Even Superdelegate Tim Walz, a freshman Congressman from Minnesota and former high school civics teacher, admits that for a long time, he had no idea what belonging to this group entailed. He discusses his experience as a superdelegate with Madeleine Brand.
Who Are These People?
Superdelegates are elected officials, such as Walz, and party leaders, including former presidents (such as Bill Clinton), former vice presidents (such as Al Gore) and members of the Democratic National Committee. They make up roughly 20 percent of the total delegates.
Although superdelegates are "unpledged," meaning they are permitted to back any candidate they want at any point during the process, Walz has resisted throwing his vote to anyone until now.
"The reason that I've stayed out of voicing a public opinion is that I've felt that it was the citizens and constituents of my district and state's responsibility. My take on it — let's just let the people make up their mind and we'll cast it according to that," he says. "I don't believe I have any special insight to be a special delegate."
Not everyone feels this way. The Democratic Party devised the superdelegate system following the presidential election of 1972, when George McGovern lost to former President Richard Nixon in a landslide. Had party officials been more involved in choosing a nominee, perhaps they could have helped picked someone better-suited to win a national election, the logic goes. An exceptionally close primary is required, however, for this elite group's "super powers" to hold any sway.
The Dangers of Back-Room Politics
Presidential hopefuls are free to court the superdelegates — many of whom, like Walz, are also up for re-election. Walz admits that campaigning can get "back-roomy." A candidate is free to entice a superdelegate with allusions to past and future favors.
"The campaign says you've gotten help from these people, we try to say, 'Thank you, but we are going to stay neutral,'" he says. "I would hate to see a back-room deal make the decision when the people are voting on this."
Although Walz holds a coveted superdelegate position, he admits that the system is not without its flaws. It troubles him that superdelegates could potentially override the decision of voters.
"I think it should be more direct election," he says. "I think what I saw last night is what it should be: loud, chaotic, passionate. It was the people."