The Superdelegate Showdown Might be Key to the Democratic Nomination

Both Clinton and Obama are fighting for support from this key group.

Sen. Dick Durbin provides delegates with a personal history of Obama.

Sen. Dick Durbin provides delegates with a personal history of Obama.

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The superdelegates were created to give automatic voting power to members of the party establishment who would cast their ballots independently, without being tied to the results of primaries and caucuses. They were empowered to choose the best candidate and not be swayed by the moods and passions of the moment or organized factions that could dominate the primaries.

What has caused so many complications this year is the extremely close race waged by Obama and Clinton. Their support is based in almost equal measure on competing mainstream forces within the party—such as advocates of change who back Obama and backers of party traditions who support Clinton. These are not the reckless left-wing firebrands or ideological factions that the party leaders feared in 1982. Another complication has been the proportional system for awarding delegates, rather than the Republicans' winner-take-all approach. This guarantees that even the loser of a primary will receive enough delegates to keep the race alive and prolong the fight.

In the end, if the superdelegates make the final choice of a nominee, they will inevitably disappoint and anger the losing side, which amounts to half the party. And that doesn't sound like a winning formula for the general election.