In the weeks since "Super Duper Tsunami Tuesday," Barack Obama has won every contest against Hillary Clinton, building up an impressive collection of pledged delegates. At this point, though, no candidate can pass the magic number to win outright. She or he will require help from 796 "superdelegates" to surpass the threshold of 2,025 delegates necessary to secure the nomination.
Democrats have used superdelegates since 1982 to ensure that party officials can conclude a contentious primary season when a clear frontrunner can't clinch the campaign. Supposedly, this innovation marks some improvement over the fabled days of smoke-filled rooms and brokered conventions. And they have already impacted the party's decision-making process. Historians remind us that superdelegates proved essential to helping Walter Mondale prevail over Gary Hart in 1984. Now, Democrats confront their return to significance.
In 2008 we see a real possibility that superdelegates may side with Clinton, even if Obama has more pledged delegates and/or wins the popular vote. Amazingly, a small collection of party insiders -- political lions, hacks, and assorted hangers-on, each of whom controls a vote that is estimated to equal that of some 13,000 "regular voters" -- could hand the race to whomever they choose.
If Clinton manages to score a respectable number of votes in delegate-rich states like Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, or if she convinces the party to seat enough pro-Clinton delegates from Florida and Michigan to help her catch up, Democrats could face a real stickler. Superdelegates may conclude that while Obama has the popular momentum, Clinton is the safer choice - and give her the nomination. This would be a mistake. Superdelegates should vote with their districts, reflecting the popular vote. Any other choice would make a mockery out of the process.
To me, the only excuse for a superdelegate to vote contrary to the popular will is a last-minute realization that the otherwise winning candidate is manifestly unfit for office. I'm talking about dirty pictures featuring sheep or a sudden rush of "campaign contributions" from the Cayman Islands. Otherwise, whether the victor is Obama or Clinton, the principle is the same: Let the people rule.
Gee, that sounds like a great philosophy for folks calling themselves Democrats.