College student Jason Rae has become a Wisconsin celebrity. News reports have him fielding a call from ex-President Clinton and breakfasting with Chelsea. He also has chatted with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, an Obama backer. Not bad for a 21-year-old who has never voted in a presidential election.
Rae is a momentary superstar because he is a superdelegate, part of an elite 800-member club that, in the likely event that neither candidate can drum up the 2,025 pledged delegates needed to win, would choose the Democratic presidential nominee. With Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton nearly in a dead heat, this assortment of Congress members, Democratic governors and party leaders has suddenly become a focus of the two campaigns. The bad news for Democratic voters is that many superdelegates are jumping the gun and making up their minds about which candidate to back, so the candidate with the most votes may not win the nomination. That would be a tremendous mistake.
The system of superdelegates, created after the 1980 election, gives roughly seven-millionths of the Democratic Party 20% of the vote at the convention. It was put in place after party leaders felt sidelined by earlier rules changes that had returned the bulk of nominating power to voters. What they hoped to avoid was another fiasco like the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. The ultra-liberal wing of the party ensured he won the primary vote, but in the general election he carried only a single state, Massachusetts. Yet 1972 was a long time ago, and the superdelegate system is showing signs of wear. It's too late to tinker with it for this election, but there are ample reasons for these special delegates to hold back and avoid anointing a winner while voters are still doing their part.
Here's a consideration for them to ponder. Which wing of party stalwarts can superdelegates afford to alienate by backing one candidate prematurely? Moderate to liberal men, who back Obama? White women, who back Clinton? Do you drive away Obama's supporters in the African American community, or Clinton's in the Latino community?
The best function of superdelegates would be to legitimize a candidate who already had won the majority of Democratic delegates. That's what happened in 1984, when Walter Mondale had a narrow lead over Gary Hart going into the convention and the superdelegates backed the former vice president. Although this page firmly supports Obama, the Democrats have two worthy choices and do not need party bigwigs to decide for them. For the bulk of the superdelegates to commit now would be not only unnecessary, it would be undemocratic.