Cover Story
Alice Keeney for WORLD

Wild cards

Campaign 2008 | Super delegates could become the way to put one candidate over the top

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

CHARLESTON, S.C.-On a brisk January morning in Charleston, S.C., a bundled-up tour guide stands at the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets, pointing out "the four corners of the law" to a handful of shivering tourists: Old City Hall, the federal courthouse, the county courthouse, and the 256-year-old St. Michael's Episcopal Church stand on each corner of the famous intersection.

Just down palm-lined Broad Street, a row of attorneys' offices sits nestled in a cluster of colorful buildings dating back to 1900. From his bay-window perch on the second floor of one of the narrow structures, Waring Howe Jr. (pictured) practices personal injury law in the same office his father purchased for his own law practice in 1949.

To an outsider, Howe's one-man practice in his small, three-room office may seem ordinary. But to Democratic Party insiders, Howe's national influence makes him a sought-after man by some of the most powerful people in politics.

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That's because Howe is a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and one of an elite group of delegates to the Democratic National Convention known as "super delegates." The 796 super delegates comprise about 20 percent of the 4,049 delegates sent to the Democratic nominating convention this summer, and they hold unique power.

The majority of convention delegates are elected by state parties and are considered "pledged delegates," which means they must vote in the nominating convention for the presidential candidate who won their states' primaries. When a candidate wins a state primary, the delegates he or she picks up are pledged delegates.

But super delegates, or "unpledged delegates," are considered free agents: They aren't bound to their states' choice for a nominee, and they may commit support to any candidate they choose at any time during the primary season. They may also switch their support to another candidate all the way up to the nominating convention. (Republicans have a far smaller number of unpledged delegates who typically vote for the candidate that wins their states' primaries.)

Democrats added super delegates to their nominating process after a series of reforms in the 1970s intended to open the process to more grassroots voters and lessen the influence of some party leaders who wielded inordinate power.

When Sen. George McGovern won the Democratic nomination in 1972, but lost the presidential election in a landslide, Democrats began reforming the rules again to give back a measure of influence to party leaders, designating them as super delegates.

That means that while Democratic candidates wage high-profile battles for ordinary voter support in primary states, a separate campaign is unfolding behind the scenes: the battle for super delegates who can deliver delegate votes before primaries even begin. In an election cycle with a tight Democratic race early in the primary season, super delegates could be a critical piece of a winning strategy.

Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign proved that point early on: By late December, some 158 super delegates had already pledged their support to Clinton, more than a week before the first caucus began. For Clinton, that meant she had already secured 158 delegates toward the 2,025 she needed to win the nomination. Sen. Barack Obama trailed Clinton with about 89 super delegate votes.

By late January, both candidates had picked up more super delegates, but Clinton maintained an 85-vote lead over Obama among super delegates. That created a twist in the race for the nomination: Though Obama had won more pledged delegates than Clinton in state primaries by the end of January, Clinton's super delegate lead meant she still had more delegates than Obama in the overall race.

Since super delegates may change their minds midway through a primary season, and since a majority of super delegates haven't yet endorsed a candidate, Clinton's numbers will likely change. But for now, even a perceived lead in the overall delegate count gives Clinton an advantage in building momentum and persuading others to support her campaign.

From the time they announce their presidential bids, Democratic candidates engage in sophisticated campaigns to woo the broad spectrum of party devotees who make up the super delegate roster. The list includes all Democratic members of Congress; all Democratic governors; all former Democratic presidents, vice presidents and congressional leaders; former DNC chairmen; and members of the DNC, usually chosen by state parties.

The eclectic mix of super delegates makes clinching support easier for some candidates than for others. For example, Clinton enjoyed the immediate support of her super delegate husband, former president Bill Clinton. She also enjoys the super delegate support of her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, a former DNC chairman.

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