The Superdelegate 'Firewall'
At the heart of the Democratic Party's nomination process is a decidedly undemocratic creature known as the superdelegate.
What are superdelegates, aka unpledged delegates? Key word: unpledged.
Superdelegates - mostly members of Congress, governors, party officials and grass-roots activists - can back any candidate they choose. While ordinary delegates are technically committed to a candidate, superdelegates can change their allegiance whenever they feel like it.
Former President Clinton, for example, is a superdelegate - hence his vital importance to his wife's bid for the White House. The Washington Post reports: "Clinton, former president Bill Clinton...and their allies have been working aggressively for months to court the superdelegates, drawing on old loyalties to open a huge advantage for the senator from New York in total delegates amassed."
Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager and superdelegate Donna Brazile, describes the essence of this elitist practice. "One person, one vote? Forget about it. Some votes are worth more than others. You have to know the rules."
Those are the "rules." And this is the way the game is being played: "Of the nearly 300 superdelegates who have committed to a candidate, out of a total of 796, Clinton leads Obama roughly by a 2-to-1 ratio, according to numerous counts. The lead is so substantial, her campaign asserted before Super Tuesday, that even if Obama pulls ahead in pledged delegates after Feb. 5, (as he did) Clinton will probably retain a modest edge in the overall delegate tally."
Tom Foreman of CNN.com provides a super brief history of the superdelegate. "A few decades ago, Democratic leaders felt that sometimes, Democratic voters were choosing poor presidential candidates: campaigners who couldn't win elections, or even if they could, they didn't please Democratic kingmakers."
"Jimmy Carter, for example, was an obscure candidate who developed so much popular appeal that he essentially forced Democratic Party leaders to accept him as the nominee, even though not everyone was thrilled by it."
"They made the superdelegates: a super class of super Democrats, each of whom could vote at the convention for a candidate of choice - in effect, giving each of these Democrats the power of tens of thousands of average citizens."
So, with delegates-on-steroids as the Democratic Party "rule," it explains why Obama can be getting more votes and ordinary delegates while Hillary Clinton leads in overall delegate count. This is what the Clinton campaign refers to as their "firewall."
Think 100-yard-dash (I ran track in the pre-metric system days) with Clinton starting 20-yards ahead of Obama. To mix metaphors - that's not exactly a level playing field. But like Donna said: those are the "rules."
Lots of journalists are starting to wonder about superdelegates - to the point where the Democratic National Committee held a teleconference on Friday to answer some of our questions.
The idea of superdelegates was born out of a desire to avoid a "brokered convention" in which no candidate wins the party's nomination on the first ballot. The last time that happened was the 1952 Democratic Convention when 11 names were nominated in a nail-biter that included Adlai Stevenson, who became the party's third-ballot nominee.
This year, the winner will need 2,025 delegates - half the total number of delegates who will be seated at the upcoming convention. And though the DNC isn't keeping an official Clinton-Obama delegate score, they did say there were still 1,435 delegates up for grabs.
Another interesting number was also revealed: Of the 796 super delegate slots, 76 of them have yet to be picked.
No future speculations were entertained during the Friday's Q & A session, which, of course, will only fuel more speculation, especially during an election season with tremendous popular appeal.
What if Clinton and Obama are neck-and-neck on the delegate count going into the convention and the superdelegates aren't just a deciding factor but THE deciding factor? What if the Clinton super delegate "firewall" trend continues and these super delegates end up crowning Hillary king, even though Obama gets more votes?
True, all the candidates knew the "rules" going in. So, Hillary's delegate advantage can be considered "fair play." But if this undemocratic "rule" should happen to beat a more popular Obama, there's going to be lots of folks, inside and outside the party, rightly crying foul.
Sean Gonsalves is an assistant news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at email@example.com