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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Fates of candidates rest in hands of 796 voters

It's been more than a year since the two Democratic candidates announced their intentions to run for president. We thought we'd have a nominee by now. Feb. 5 was supposed to decide it all. So, after a year of campaigning and numerous primaries, we now know this could all come down to the convention in August - and the votes of 796 people. 


Those 796 people are superdelegates, and they vote however they want to vote. The 796 are party insiders - Democratic governors, members of Congress and members of the Democratic National Committee. So far, 261 have endorsed Clinton and 178 have endorsed Obama, according to NBC News estimates. 


These are different than the delegates given out based on primaries and caucuses, which are called pledged delegates. After Tuesday, Sen. Barack Obama has 1,128 pledged delegates and Sen. Hillary Clinton has 1009 delegates. 


Of Wisconsin's 92 delegates, 16 are superdelegates, one of whom, Awais Khaleel, a UW-Madison senior and the vice chair of the College Democrats of America, plans to remain neutral in the race. Another, Marquette junior Jason Rae, is undecided, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  


Because the race is so close, there is basically no way for one of the candidates to reach the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination without superdelegates like Khaleel and Rae coming into play. But what happens when the race comes down to these 796 people? Well, under certain circumstances, chaos could easily occur. 


Let's say Obama gets to the convention with a lead of 100 or more pledged delegates, but Clinton has more superdelegates. The votes are cast and Clinton emerges as the nominee. The proverbial smoke-filled room scenario would be complete - party insiders would have chosen the nominee despite the American people voting otherwise. Luckily, this probably won't happen. 


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I think that would be a disaster for the party and I think that is extremely unlikely to happen,"" said political science professor David Canon. ""These are all smart people and I think they can see how the voters would view that."" 


To avoid this catastrophe, the superdelegates would have to make a choice: either vote as their states voted, or vote for the winner of the pledged delegates. However, without a convincing margin in pledged delegates - perhaps something more in the range of 50 - then anything can happen, according to Canon. 


Still, the potential for disaster is huge, and it shows a nomination process that may require a facelift. The last reform came after the 1968 Democratic Convention, which ended in riots. Hubert Humphrey won the nomination even though he hadn't entered a single primary. The McGovern-Fraser reforms wished to put the power into the hands of the people once and for all, and that's why we have the system we have today. 


Ironically, after a decade of working this way, the law was changed to include superdelegates after the 1980 election because party leaders thought the system gave too much power to voters, according to Canon. 


""This process is working out precisely the way the party leaders wanted it to,"" he said. We'll have to wait and see whether that's a good thing or not. As Sen. John McCain sits on the sidelines as the presumptive Republican nominee - smearing both Obama and Clinton with little retribution - a race that goes to the convention could very well hurt the Democratic party. 


A race decided by 796 people would hurt the party even more. But, if they're smart, these people will realize that the real power belongs to the voters, and they will back the nominee who leads in pledged delegates, regardless of who they support. 


Erik Opsal is a senior majoring in journalism and political science. Please send responses to

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