Cover Story

Wild cards

"Wild cards" Continued...

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

If Clinton and Obama continued to garner similar numbers of delegates throughout the primary season, it's possible that super delegates could put one candidate over the top.

It's happened at least once before: In 1984, presidential candidate Walter Mondale confidently promised he would sew up the Democratic nomination by June 6. When he fell about 40 delegates short in an unexpectedly tight race with Sen. Gary Hart, Mondale's aides hit the phones to super delegates and pulled out the nomination that day.

Rohde doesn't expect that close a finish on either the Democratic or Republican side, but he notes that the GOP competition is complicated as well: With several viable contenders in the race, candidates have been splitting the number of delegates they need to win the nomination, and each could fall short of a majority.

With 20-plus contests looming for both parties on Feb. 5, Rohde thinks it's unlikely the field will remain so close. But he also concedes that unlikely events do happen in politics. "It was extremely unlikely that the Republicans would take control of the House in 1994," he said. "But they did."

Super delegate timeline

1960s: No uniform primary system exists. Democratic Party heavyweights like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley work backroom deals and wield inordinate power in influencing the nomination process.

Early 1970s: The Democratic Party reforms rules to open up the nominating process and create a uniform primary and caucus system that gives more influence to a wider spectrum of voters, including grassroots activists and minorities.

1972: Sen. George McGovern wins the Democratic nomination, but loses the general election in a disastrous landslide: McGovern wins only one state and the District of Columbia.

1982: The Democratic Party reforms rules again, creating super delegates to give elected party officials more influence in the nomination process. Officials hope the move will help them retain a measure of control in selecting a nominee in sync with the party and viable in general elections.

1984: In a tighter-than-expected race with Democratic opponent Gary Hart, presidential candidate Walter Mondale woos enough super delegates on June 6 to clinch the nomination early.

2008: In another tighter-than-expected race, opponents Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have waged intense campaigns to secure super delegates early in an unpredictable contest.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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