COLUMBIA — As Democratic primaries continue across the country and candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama remain in a virtual deadlock, the party’s superdelegates are becoming the focus of increased attention.
Superdelegates are generally high-ranking Democratic officeholders who are uncommitted and can vote for the candidate of their choice at the national convention. Their votes carry the same weight as any other delegate awarded to a candidate on the basis of caucus or primary election results.
“If the contest between Sens. Clinton and Obama remains close, superdelegates may make the difference,” MU political science professor Marvin Overby said.
Washington University political science professor Randall Calvert agreed.
“It looks likely that no Democratic candidate will have amassed enough delegates through primary elections to ensure victory at the convention,” Calvert said. “In that case, the superdelegates, who are not rule-bound to fulfill any pledge previously made to support a particular candidate, may hold the balance of power.”
The Democratic Party created superdelegates in the wake of Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential race. First used in 1984, they have yet to be a deciding factor in a Democratic presidential nomination.
“Superdelegates were intended to encourage (moderates) to attend the convention, and it was hoped that they would contribute to the nomination of a moderate, electable candidate,” Overby said.
Jack Cardetti, spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party, noted that the number of superdelegates awarded to each state is determined by the extent of the state’s support of Democratic candidates.
“(Superdelegates) exist mostly to reward states that have a history of electing Democrats,” Cardetti said. “If your state elects more members to Congress, you get more members at the Democratic National Convention.”
Of the 4,090 total delegates available to Democratic candidates, 794 are categorized as superdelegates. Although a Democrat needs only 2,025 delegates to win the party’s nomination, the leanings of superdelegates become more important if the primary campaign remains tight. As of Wednesday, Obama had 1,223 delegates to Clinton’s 1,198.
Because Missouri’s Democratic primary was decided by such a slim margin, superdelegates are in a position to determine whether Obama or Clinton ultimately wins the state. Of Missouri’s 88 total delegates, 72 will be proportionally divided between the two based on the results of Super Tuesday’s primary. Preliminary results show an even split of 36 delegates apiece for the two major contenders.
Missouri’s remaining 16 delegates are the uncommitted superdelegates. Missouri Democratic Party elites, including elected officials and party committee members, have already been appointed 14 superdelegates. A committee within the Missouri Democratic Party will choose the other two in April.
Cardetti said superdelegates are “trusted members” of the party.
“They’ve either been elected by Missouri constituents or by committee,” Cardetti said. “Some delegates have endorsed, others have not, and the superdelegate votes will only be important the longer this close race goes on.”
Superdelegates who spoke with the Missourian see their responsibilities differently.
“The superdelegates have a right to vote,” said John Temporiti, a superdelegate and chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party. “When they were elected to leadership, they were trusted to make decisions using their best reasoning and with their constituents in mind. I will take into account the vote of the citizens of Missouri, which was equal, and I will rely on my experience and the fact that I was elected to leadership to make the right decision. The goal will be to pledge to the best overall candidate, one that can win the Democratic nomination, and most importantly, one that can win the presidential election.”
Mark Bryant of Kansas City, a superdelegate and a member of the Democratic National Committee, planned to take his cue from the results of the statewide primary.
“I do not believe my opinion should be weighed heavier than any other resident of the state,” Bryant said. “As far as I am concerned, Missouri residents expressed their opinions in the primary election on Feb. 5. So, absent intervening circumstances, I plan to vote for Barack Obama.”
Not all superdelegates, however, are willing to do that. Superdelegate Leila Medley, who supported John Edwards before he dropped out of the race, planned to vote her conscience.
“I believe by ‘holding out,’ the presidential candidates will be forced to discuss the issues of importance to me. I have already seen the impact of John Edwards’ influence upon the other candidates. They need him and his delegates, so they will have to talk about our issues.”
Superdelegates will cast their votes in August at the Democratic National Convention hosted in Denver.
“If everything remains close, the superdelegates will cast their vote, and will make that ultimate decision.” Temporiti said. “That is the democratic process.”