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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And another 10 percent of superdelegates say they would go with the candidate who won their state or congressional district. The rest of the delegates weren't definitive in explaining how they would vote, or they declined to answer.

The reason the superdelegates are so important is that neither Obama nor Clinton has been able to lock up the nomination (as has John McCain on the Republican side). Before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, Clinton led among superdelegates 263 to 244, according to the AP. After the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, both candidates scrambled for support from superdelegates. Clinton got the coveted endorsement of North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, helping to increase her total. Despite the endorsement, Clinton's superdelegate lead has dwindled, and Obama has the most delegates overall, 1,732.5 to 1,597.5. It will be next to impossible for Clinton to catch up without getting the superdelegates to support her. In fact, neither candidate is expected to reach a majority without the superdelegates.

After Indiana's and North Carolina's primaries on May 6, the next are in West Virginia May 13, Kentucky and Oregon May 20, Puerto Rico June 1, and Montana and South Dakota June 3. It's very likely that neither candidate will roll up a big string of wins. Indiana is a tossup. Obama is favored in North Carolina, Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota, while Clinton is expected to win West Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico.

While Clinton has enjoyed what she called a surge in contributions and pledges of up to $10 million in the 24 hours after her Pennsylvania win, her campaign remains in debt. Obama already has millions of dollars available for the next round of contests, and the money keeps pouring in. Clearly, Obama has an advantage in the money war.

Beyond that, Obama and his surrogates argue not only that he has the most delegates but that he has also won the most states, territories, and the District of Columbia. And with nine contests remaining, Clinton cannot surpass him in the number of states won. Obama also tells superdelegates that he has a half-million-vote lead in the popular vote, at least in contests approved by the national party.

Obama says he is best positioned to attract new voters, young people, independents, affluent suburbanites, and African-Americans and to capitalize on growing anti-Washington sentiments in the electorate and an overwhelming desire for change and reconciliation. He also says he can carry states that haven't been in play for the Democrats in recent years, such as Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Clinton is using a variety of arguments in courting the superdelegates. First of all, she says that if Florida and Michigan are counted, she is actually ahead in the popular vote because she won both states. The problem is that the two states held their primaries too early, in violation of DNC rules, and the candidates boycotted them at the DNC's request. The DNC also disqualified all their delegates. Clinton now wants the results counted. Obama says that's unfair, since the candidates agreed not to campaign there. The party hasn't found a way to resolve the dispute.

Clinton, hoping to stir up "buyer's remorse," says Obama is only now showing his vulnerabilities as the media finally scrutinize him. Clinton says "the tide is turning" and Obama has shown that he can't win the big swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania; that he is unpopular among white working-class voters who will be crucial in the swing states; that the states where he is strongest won't generate as many electoral votes as the states where Clinton is strongest. Clinton also argues that Obama can't stand up to the "Republican attack machine," which Clinton has overcome before, and that her background is well known, while Obama's past is still unclear.

The superdelegate system that is so controversial today was devised in 1982 by the Commission on Presidential Nominations, a special DNC panel chaired by then North Carolina Gov. James Hunt. At the time, the party was trying to limit the impact of primaries after George McGovern, backed by a cadre of ideological activists, used the direct democracy of those contests to win the nomination in 1972 and Jimmy Carter did the same to win renomination in 1980. Both were demolished in the general election, McGovern by Richard Nixon and Carter by Ronald Reagan.