All of a sudden, “superdelegates” are all the rage

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With the conclusion of Super Tuesday and still no clear winner on the Democratic side, talk of the importance of “superdelegates” is all the rage in the media. The Washington Post, Associated Content, Mother Jones and even Agence France-Presse are examining the role of these “unpledged” Democratic convention voters and whether they will ultimately select the party’s nomination to the presidency (The Post’s Paul Kane says that they will).

When we decided to examine the superdelegate issue back on Jan. 13, most of the pundits and political observers we interviewed told us that the nomination race would be decided long before the August convention, making the roughly 800 superdelegate votes moot.

But now, with a close Clinton-Obama race likely even into the summer, these votes seem more crucial than ever. Under national Democratic party rules, every Democratic member of Congress, governor and high-ranking party official has a vote in the convention. These “superdelegates,” unlike regular delegates, do not have their votes tied to the popular vote in their own states; they can cast a ballot for whomever they choose, or change sides at any time.

By most counts Hillary leads the superdelegate race (CNN says Clinton has 193 to Obama”s 106), which means that the former first lady could be going into the convention with a slight advantage if the race stays neck and neck until then. Then again, superdelegates have been traditionally fickle, with even those in the opposition camp rolling over to the front-runner’s column come convention time.

So what happens if there is no clear front-runner by then, or if Clinton remains slightly in the lead as she is now? Most of the superdelegates will likely stay with the establishment candidate (read Clinton, the one with most high-ranking party officials on her side), giving her the nomination. But if Obama takes even a slight lead in the popular vote, will the superdelegates choose to honor the will of the people and switch sides to the leading candidate? It is hard to tell at this point.

To be honest, we can’t blame the political observers for thinking this would have been decided by now. I always figured it would be close, but my prediction on Tuesday night that Clinton’s California win would leave her with up to 200 delegates ahead of Obama, despite his wins in more states, was way off — looks like the actual difference in pledged delegates between the candidates is less than 10.

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