Friends and relatives keep asking me lately: Can you please explain what the heck a superdelegate is? It's time for a primer.
Let's start by distinguishing between the regular delegates won during state primaries and caucuses, who number just over 3,200, and these nearly 800 superdelegates, who are party leaders and elected officials. I rounded these figures on purpose: With a bit of back-of-the-napkin math, we see that superdelegates account for about one-fifth of all delegates. Because a candidate needs only a majority of the 4,000 or so delegates - 2,025, to be exact - superdelegate votes could, in theory, put a candidate two-fifths of the way toward the nomination without him or her winning any delegates in state primaries and caucuses.
The question confronting superdelegates is whether they should declare their support early for the candidate they think best represents the party, or whether they should wait to cast their vote for the person who wins the majority of pledged delegates during the state contests. This question is creating interesting tensions for superdelegates - especially here in Maryland.
Most years, there is no tension, because some candidate creates sufficient momentum that he will reach the majority threshold with pledged delegates alone. Four years ago, after winning only a few hundred delegates, Sen. John Kerry was well on his way to a majority. Superdelegates' votes did not decide his nomination; they ratified it.
But this year, the race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is so close that neither is likely to obtain 2,025 pledged delegates, a reality complicated by the fact that delegates from Michigan and Florida currently do not count because the Democratic Party in both states ignored the national party's calendar guidelines by voting before Feb. 5. The result is that superdelegates could decide the outcome, which puts intense pressure on them.
More interesting is that some are cross-pressured by the primary results from their home states and their personal preferences. According to The New York Times, 34 superdelegates have declared support for Mr. Obama despite the fact Mrs. Clinton carried their state. Mr. Kerry and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy are notable examples.
Conversely, 79 thus far have announced their support for Mrs. Clinton despite hailing from states that Mr. Obama carried. Amazingly, nine such superdelegates are Marylanders. Gov. Martin O'Malley and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski are among them.
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Mr. O'Malley got help from the Clintons during his 2006 gubernatorial run, with former President Bill Clinton headlining a major fundraiser in Montgomery County during the late stages of that campaign. As for Ms. Mikulski, as the first woman elected to the Senate in her own right, it would be difficult to imagine her casting her lot with anyone other than Mrs. Clinton.
A third member of this group of nine is Glen Middleton, one of the state's most powerful labor leaders and among the state's most politically influential African-Americans. His support derives in part from the fact that he is president of Council 67 of AFSCME, which has endorsed Mrs. Clinton.
Taken together, the commonality is loyalty - political loyalty (Mr. O'Malley), collegial loyalty (Ms. Mikulski) and organizational loyalty (Mr. Middleton).
Then, by contrast, there is Susan Turnbull. A longtime Democratic activist from Montgomery County, Mrs. Turnbull is a superdelegate by virtue of her position as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. (Disclosure: She and I have been friends for many years.) Her loyalties this cycle thus operate on a different level, because party bylaws demand that she essentially remain a neutral referee.
She will therefore commit to nobody, and hopes she will not be forced to vote at the Democratic National Convention to break a stalemate. "The best thing for our party is that prior to the convention, the person who has the most superdelegates and the person who has won the most delegates is the same candidate," she says.
One can only imagine the uproar to follow if that is not the case.