The power of the super delegates

March 4, 2008 9:26:10 AM PST
Super delegates in the Democratic party could play a decisive role in choosing a nominee.

Months ago, Democrats Patrick Murphy and Allyson Schwartz were clear about whom they wanted to be their party's nominee for president. Murphy backed Obama, while Schwartz went with Clinton.

Usually, their political pledges would barely be news, but not this time. Murphy and Schwartz are under a hot spotlight because they are super delegates, part of the party establishment. They are among almost 800 elected officials, party bigwigs and activists get to vote at the convention.

Super delegates were created to essentially blunt a campaign of a party outsider.

After outsiders George McGovern and Jimmy Carter won the Democratic party nominations in 1972 and 1976, many party officials felt the need to have a greater role in the process.

This year those votes are critical, since neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton will likely get enough votes from pledged delegates (delegates allotted by the primaries and caucuses) to clinch the nomination.

Obama leads Clinton in popular votes and pledged delegates that have been awarded proportionally through the results of nominating contests. He says super delegates should abide by the outcome of contests in their states.

"It would be problematic for the political insiders to overturn the judgment of the voters," Obama said last month.

Clinton, who as a former first lady has strong ties to party leaders across the nation, leads among super delegates.

She argues super delegates should make up their own minds, and not necessarily go with the popular vote.

"Super delegates are by design supposed to exercise independent judgment," Clinton told reporters last month.

Indeed, some super delegates are going against the popular vote of their states: Delaware went for Obama, but Gov. Ruth Ann Miner is still for Clinton. Massachusetts's democrats chose Clinton, but both Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy say they will still vote for Obama.

What happens when Pennsylvania votes on April 22? Schwartz and Murphy both face re-election in the fall. Murphy says even if his district goes for Clinton, he will still vote for Obama at the convention. Asked if her district goes for Obama, Schwartz was less committal.

Experts predict the Super Delegates will go to the August convention and follow the popular vote despite their personal preferences, but the nightmare scenario could happen -- the Super Delegates deciding the nominee against the wishes of the popular vote.

Many party insiders pray either Clinton or Obama wrap up this campaign with commanding victories, perhaps in Ohio and Texas or, at the very latest, in Pennsylvania, and the loser gracefully withdraws.