Some delegates are more equal than others

February 8, 2008

BARACK OBAMA and Hillary Clinton both had their highlights in the Super Tuesday primaries, but the overall result was virtually an even split--both came away with roughly the same number of delegates. It certainly looks like the Democratic presidential nomination will go down to the wire.

Or will it?

With the vote so close between Clinton and Obama, attention is finally being paid to a group of delegates to the Democratic convention that's twice as big as the biggest state delegation--those representing not California or New York or Illinois, but the "great state" of Political Clout.

These are the aptly named superdelegates. There are nearly 800 of them, including every Democrat with a seat in Congress or a governor's mansion, as well as past party luminaries and a variety of political operatives and insiders.

The superdelegate system was created in the 1980s specifically as a reaction against reforms to democratize the Democrats' primary system that grew out of the struggles of the 1960s. Superdelegates were intended to provide a last line of defense for the party establishment to block any candidate that threatened to rock the boat overly much.

Superdelegates are bound to no one, and their votes at the convention are worth many times the votes of ordinary people in the primaries. "One person, one vote? Forget about it," Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, told the Washington Post. "Some votes are worth more than others."

Clinton has an obvious advantage in winning the support of the super-delegates--her husband was the last Democrat to control the executive branch's job machine for rewarding loyalists. "Many of the superdelegates were in and out of the Clinton White House, invited to dinners, have received contributions from Clinton allies," said Gary Hart, who lost a 1984 bid to become the Democrats' presidential candidate.

Going into Super Tuesday, roughly twice as many superdelegates had pledged their support to Clinton as Obama, but only about 300 of the 796 were committed to either one.

Many Obama supporters fear the Clintonites will use superdelegates to take the nomination away from their candidate, but Obama has plenty of supporters within the party establishment, too--including well-known figures who are plainly tired of Clinton cronies running the show.

For all his rhetoric about challenging the status quo, Obama isn't the kind of maverick that the superdelegate system was designed to safeguard against. If he wins a majority of delegates in the primaries coming into the convention, there's a good chance the remaining superdelegates will come his way as well.

The real question, though, is why there are superdelegates at all--and what the fact that they do exist says about the Democratic Party's commitment to democracy.

The Democrats' image as the "party of the people" is just that: an image. This, after all, is a party that depended on the power of Southern slaveowners and segregationists and Northern city machines.

The Democrats have reinvented themselves many times to capture the loyalty of a base of voters, most recently, by seeming to speak to the ideals of the movements for social change of the 1960s and early 1970s.

But the superdelegate system is a reminder that, at its heart, the Democratic Party is the political vehicle of one wing of the U.S. ruling class, whose interests are quite different from the mass of people who vote for the Democrats.

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