We all owe a great debt of gratitude to Ari Berman for explaining the role of superdelegates in the Democratic nominating process in an article, which will appear in the February 18 issue of The Nation and currently has a page on that magazine's Web site. Back on January 5 I ran a post that accounted for superdelegates, as well as those recently committed by the Iowa primary, according to the following sentence from an Associated Press article:
Overall, Clinton leads with 175 delegates, including superdelegates, followed by Obama with 75 and Edwards with 46.
Thus, by taking superdelegate numbers into account, Obama was hardly in a position to cheer after Iowa. Here is how Berman has updated those numbers:
Before Super Tuesday, Obama had sixty-three pledged [e.g. based on primary or caucus results] delegates, compared with Clinton's forty-eight. But as we went to press Clinton had a huge advantage in superdelegates, 184 to ninety-five, according to CNN.
The bulk of Berman's article goes into answering that eternal question first posed by Butch Cassidy, "Who are these guys?" The answer requires a history of Democratic National Conventions since 1968. It is a roller-coaster ride of all sorts of ups and downs; and, like many roller-coaster rides, it is likely to induce barfing among those who have not prepared themselves before reading it. However, as many of my teachers told me, much of the most important knowledge comes with pain; so don't chicken out from reading Berman's account! Nevertheless, at the end of the ride there is a direct answer to Butch's question:
They include all Democratic members of Congress and every governor, but roughly half of them are Democratic National Committee officials elected by state parties, who range from top party operatives to local city council members. Key interests in the party, like labor groups, can also name superdelegates.
Note that this is not strictly a definitive answer, and I suspect that the Democratic National Committee is going to labor long and hard to make sure that enquiring minds (like Berman's) never find out just how many superdelegates there really are and, aside from the governors and Congress members, who they actually are. Indeed, I would guess that the Rules Committee will come up with a way by which we never determine that number by, for example, subtracting the count of pledged delegates from the total delegate count. As to the "why" question that lurks behind the "who" question, Berman offers up a great quote from political scientist Rhodes Cook, who describes them as a "firewall to blunt any party outsider that built up a head of steam in the primaries."
If there is any good news to this story, it is that there appear to be approximately 400 uncommitted superdelegates; and it is far from clear how they are likely to decide. So, barf-inducing as Berman's ride may be, it does not end by dumping us in the Slough of Despond by convincing us that the whole process has already been rigged. Thus, I continue to believe that boycotting any primary or caucus will be counterproductive, as long as we bear in mind a simple caveat elector rule: Your vote counts for less than you thought. (On the other hand arguing over whether or not voting machines have been tampered may be counterproductive, since the numbers they yield may not have much impact on the "grand scheme of numbers!")