What the Heck is a Superdelegate?

If you’ve been following the tightly-contested race to choose a Democratic candidate for the American presidency, you’ve probably heard the term ‘superdelegate’. What is a superdelegate?

To paraphrase Wikipedia, most delegates are selected through party primaries and caucuses (Vanessa explains these here). However, a minority of delegates are ‘unpledged’ and are known as superdelegeates. Back to Wikipedia:

Superdelegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention include all Democratic members of the United States Congress, Democratic governors, various additional elected officials, members of the Democratic National Committee, as well as “all former Democratic Presidents, all former Democratic Vice Presidents, all former Democratic Leaders of the U.S. Senate, all former Democratic Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives and Democratic Minority Leaders, as applicable, and all former Chairs of the Democratic National Committee.

The superdelegate system was set up in 1982, to take some influence away from party activists and restore it to party insiders. One article I read described them as the “invisible primary”. Here’s the complete list of superdelegates, if anybody is interested.

By The Numbers

And now for some numbers:

Delegates from state caucuses and primaries: 3253
Current number of superdelegates: 796 (though this may change)

The current total number of delegates is therefore 4049, and Senators Clinton and Obama need at least 2025 to win. As of today, February 10, according to CNN, 2165 of the delegates have been allocated. That leaves about 1100 delegates in play before the Democratic convention.

So, it’s looking unlikely that either candidate will get the 2025 delegates from state parties and caucuses alone. The superdelegates will then come into play at the Democratic convention as tie-breakers. This New York Times article discusses how hard the parties have been working to secure the support of superdelegates. From what I’ve read, Democrats dread that possibilty. From the Times article:

“It is going to be an enormous train wreck unless by June 3 a candidate has a majority,” said Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who supports Mrs. Clinton. “I don’t think we want to go back to those wheeling-dealing, smoke-filled back-room days.”

So that means that about 20% of the votes are coming from party leaders and officials who haven’t been democratically selected during the primaries (if at all). This seems dubious, but one should remember that candidate selection isn’t exclusively democratic (it certainly isn’t in Canada, either).

So What are the Current Standings?

There were four primaries yesterday for the Democrats, in Washington, Louisiana, Nebraska and the US Virgin Islands (I’ve noticed in several American news sources that they oddly just called them “the Virgin Islands”.). As predicted, Sen. Obama won all three. Where does that put the race? Er, well, it depends on who you ask:

CNN – Clinton: 1100, Obama: 1039
CBS – Clinton: 1118, Obama: 1112
FOX News (from the Associated Press) – Clinton: 1084, Obama: 1054

One reason these numbers differ is because news organizations try to estimate how the superdelegates will vote. There are similar slight differences for the superdelegate count, but roughly speaking Clinton has about 225 and Obama has 125. In terms of democratically-selected delegates, I guess Obama is now ahead.

Why Are Only Some Superdelegates Counted?

Superdelegates are officially uncommitted until the Democratic convention, but may come out in favour of a candidate at any time. At the moment, about 55% of superdelegates have not declared who they’ll be supporting. The 2008 Democratic Convention Watch blog is doing yeoman’s work tracking delegate counts. They have a list of superdelegates who have officially declared their support, and those who have yet to make an endorsement.

Does Canada Have Superdelegates?

As it turns out, yes. They’re called ‘ex officio delegates’. Wikipedia, once again, to the rescue:

In addition to the elected delegates, a large number of ex officio delegates attend and vote at leadership conventions. These ex officio delegates are automatically entitled to attend by virtue of being an elected member of parliament for that party, a member of an affiliated party in a provincial legislature, a member of the party’s national or provincial executive, of the executive of an affiliated women’s or youth organization.

As an example, here’s a list of the ex-officio delegates to the Liberal Party of Canada leadership convention in 2006.


  1. As a matter of interest, it’s important to note that the primaries and caucuses are not actual elections – though they are called that. These are apparatuses of the state parties to select delegates for the conventions.

    This is why there are different rules for different states. Again, the government does not dictate or control state party primaries which is why such a thing as superdelegates can exist. It’s also why the decision of who the nominee will be can legitimately not be a democratic (not the party) decision.

    The general election, naturally, is a federally controlled election.

  2. It looks like Clinton will become the Democratic nominee based on the superdelegate vote then. But quite honestly, neither one will win against McCain. McCain is a war hero and has the leadership to be president. Obama does not have the experience, and Clinton is a woman. This country is not ready for a woman president. It will not happen.

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