Obama, Clinton Head Toward Contested Convention

A fight to the finish.

Adlai Stevenson won the last "brokered" convention in 1952.

Adlai Stevenson won the last "brokered" convention in 1952.

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In the wake of all the excitement of Super Tuesday, writers and pundits alike began to trumpet the rather shadowy-sounding claim that the battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could end up being decided at a "brokered convention." But just what does that mean?

The last truly "brokered" convention, according to historians, was in 1952, in Chicago. That year, Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois, won the Democratic nomination, with some heavy help. Party bosses, following the wishes of then President Harry Truman, put Stevenson's name on the ballot and all but hand-picked him to be their party's candidate. The convention, historians wrote, was "brokered" in Stevenson's favor.

In the decades since, both parties have adopted stricter rules and more formal nominating schedules. The changes have made the party brass less important, but certainly not irrelevant. One crucial change among Democrats came in 1982, when the party introduced "superdelegates." By official act, all congressmen, governors, and a number of party officials were dubbed superdelegates and given a single vote at the convention, to be counted with the votes of the regular delegates that had been assigned by the state primaries.

The influence of superdelegates became apparent almost immediately. In June 1984, at the end of primary season, Walter Mondale found himself just short of a majority in the delegate count. He picked up the phone, made a few calls, held a few meetings, and by the time the convention rolled around in July, he had won enough superdelegates to pitch the decision in his favor. The convention was not brokered as in 1952, but the primaries had certainly left the issue of nominating a candidate unresolved.

Fight to the end. What about 2008? To win the Democratic nomination, Clinton and Obama need a simple majority of the 4,049 delegates at stake, i.e., 2,025. Eighty percent of those delegates are awarded through primaries; the remaining 20 percent (796) are superdelegates. In a scenario in which Obama and Clinton continue to split the primaries, they will both find themselves well short of a majority. At that point the superdelegates, who don't have to pledge their vote until the party convention in August, become relevant, as they did in Mondale's case.

As of now, Clinton and Obama are actively wooing superdelegates and lining up pledges in advance of the convention. Clinton claimed an early lead on this front, thanks to her party connections, although Obama aides say that they are now catching up.

In a unique twist, there is also the outside chance of a more classic form of brokering. The chair of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, has pledged not to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida as punishment for the decision by those states to hold early primaries. Clinton, who won those primaries, has said she will fight to have them seated.