The story you're missing on superdelegates

Their duty is to pick the Democrat who can win.

It is now clear that superdelegates will ultimately decide the Democratic nominee for president, so the campaigns for both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have been making their case for what these party pooh-bahs ought to do.

Senator Obama's camp asserts that superdelegates need to vote for whoever wins more pledged delegates – almost certainly him. Senator Clinton's team contends that her often-decisive victories in large and swing states – crucial battlegrounds in the November election – should compel superdelegate support.

As in many political arguments, both claims have a hint of substance, but neither quite tells the whole story.

The Obama position boils down to this: "The people have spoken; you can't go against the people." But that's tenuous and counterintuitive. If that were the case, there'd be no need for superdelegates at all: The Democrats would simply have party rules that made the winner of pledged delegates – no matter how thin the margin – the nominee.

What Obama's people are right about, though, is that the people have spoken (and are still speaking), and what they've said so far is that Democrats have two great candidates, both of whom inspire large numbers of supporters.

It is a superdelegate's duty to reflect carefully on each candidate's strengths, on how she or he would fare in a general election, and how he or she would perform as president.

In wooing superdelegates, Obama's campaign must make the case that he can go the distance, withstand Republican attacks, and reach beyond the core demographics that have supported him in caucuses and primaries thus far.

Here's where the Clinton campaign's counterargument comes in: Her wins with key Democratic constituencies in large states and swing states, and a possible popular-vote edge, provide a compelling reason for superdelegates to tilt her way.

But this, too, is only part of the story. The popular vote, like the delegate tally, is likely to be a virtual tie. And while her wins in critical swing states are significant, it is difficult for either candidate to make conclusive arguments about general election viability based only on performance in primaries or caucuses.

Superdelegates shouldn't meditate on particular numbers from caucuses and primaries alone, but must also look ahead to what we know about key factors in the general election.

We know that there will be more focus on policy differences than there is in a primary, where voters often have the luxury of picking on personality. We know that in 2008, the economy, healthcare, and security are likely to be the top issues for voters. And we know that recent GOP wins have been built upon inroads with three groups: Latinos, so-called security moms, and working-class whites.

Clinton's campaign must continue to demonstrate that she has the substance – the Clinton track record on the economy, her nuanced command of foreign policy – and the strength with key demographics that will be necessary to win the general election, especially in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

There has been an inordinate amount of handwringing about the superdelegates among Democratic activists and the punditry:

"Oh no," they lament. "The unelected superdelegates are going to make the call. No one imagined this nightmare scenario when they created these party rules!"

Hogwash. There is no reason to assume that the prospect of a virtual tie in pledged delegates didn't occur to the designers of the system. Indeed, it is precisely in a case like this that having superdelegates makes sense. The purpose of such a format is to help the Democratic Party choose the best candidate when one has not been convincingly rendered by the primaries and caucuses.

When the superdelegates inevitably act as a tiebreaker, there may be outcries from either side that the result is undemocratic. But it's important to remember that this is not an election; it is the mechanism by which a voluntary association – the party – selects a candidate.

The primary system need not be democratic – thankfully, else we'd have to reject caucuses. The solitary objective is to produce the best Democratic candidate: a person who represents Democratic values and, critically, who can win the real election in November.

It may be politically difficult for superdelegates to bracket consideration of pledged delegates, but their hopefully principled commitment to the Democratic Party demands that they do so. After all, Obama has staked his campaign in part on reminding us that judgment certainly doesn't mean following the crowd.

As voters and caucusgoers, we have supported the person we believe in. Superdelegates have a special duty: As party leaders, they must set aside the passions of the moment, draw upon their experience and their judgment, and choose a candidate who can win and who can govern.

Daniel Baer is a faculty fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard. He is a supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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