Superdelegates: Power Behind the Process
Both major political parties have primary elections and caucuses, in which ordinary Americans turn up to vote for a particular presidential candidate. The result of this voting is that each candidate gets assigned a certain number of delegates based on how much of the vote that candidate gets. Those delegates are honor-bound to vote for that particular candidate at the party's national convention, which produces the party's nominee for president.
Some of the Republican primaries are winner-take-all, meaning that the candidate who gets the most votes gets every single one of the delegates for that state. So even in a close election, a candidate who gets just one more vote than the second-place vote-getter can claim all of the delegates.
On the Democratic side, it's a bit more complicated. Democratic delegates are handed out based on proportions of the vote. If a candidate gets 60 percent of the vote, he or she gets 60 percent of the delegates. This virtually assures that all of the candidates get at least a handful of delegates in each state.
By the time of the national conventions, it's pretty clear who the nominees will be, since the primaries and caucuses usually produce a candidate whose vote totals have produced a clear majority of the delegates needed to secure the nomination. But this doesn't technically have to be the case.
And this election year, at least for the Democratic Party, a force known as superdelegates might play a very large role in electing the party's nominee.
In the spirit of the Electoral College and its electors, the Democratic Party has a group of 796 people known as superdelegates. These are current and former government officials (like Senators and Representatives and former Presidents). These are governors of states. These are also officials of the national Democratic Party.
Most importantly, these superdelegates are not honor-bound to vote for any candidate until the time of the convention. Many of these superdelegates announce which candidate they are supporting ahead of the convention. They might very well vote for that candidate at the convention. But they don't have to. They can change their minds up until the very last second of voting.
The number of delegates needed to win the nomination of the Democratic Party is 2,025, out of a total of 4,049. The number of superdelegates is 796. That's a large number of people who don't have to make up their minds until the last minute.
The Democratic Party could be in for a very contentious national convention.
The Republican Party has a handful of unpledged delegates, 463, to be exact, out of a total of 2,380. That's about the same percentage as the Democratic Party has. The difference in the 2008 election season is, as of February, one candidate has a sizable lead in delegates and support and might not need a last-minute deal to secure his party's nomination.
In a way, this is history repeating itself. Political parties used to select their nominees only at the convention. Primaries and caucuses are relatively recent methods of voicing approval for candidates.
American history has many instances of candidates being chosen in the late hours of yet another day of debating and voting. Abraham Lincoln is a prime example of this. Virtually no political observers would have predicted that Lincoln would have been the Republican Party's nominee for President in 1860. Yet enough political deals went in his favor that he was proclaimed the standard-bearer of the GOP and, eventually, elected President.
Political bosses used to hold a large amount of power in the selection process. For the most part, that is no longer true. However, this might certainly be the case this year, especially for the Democratic Party.