As the Democratic presidential contest grinds its way through primary states and caucuses, the quest for "superdelegates" – a fifth of the total number of delegates available in the nominating process – is picking up intensity.
Call it the shadow primary. It's not played out in hard-edged debates or ad wars on the air or even at the ballot box, but rather in private conversations among party professionals – senators, House members, governors, former congressional leaders. If the race stays close, these 796 delegates could tip the outcome at the national convention in August.
"This year, they could end up being decisive," says Rhodes Cook, an independent political analyst.
But even before the convention, or the crush of primaries on Super Tuesday, the ebb and flow of the party's professional delegates is having an impact on the race. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's success in corralling endorsements from 81 superdelegates fed the image of invincibility early in her campaign. But this week's nod by Senate Democratic icon Edward Kennedy to her top rival, Sen. Barack Obama, could rock that calculation.
Unlike Republicans, who give automatic delegate status only to members of the Republican National Committee, Democrats give substantial representation to party professionals.
"It was really a tip of the hat to the criticism that there were no longer smoke-filled rooms with wizened political leaders sitting down making the great compromises to be sure they'd win, so let's bring in some of the pros and let them have a voice in this," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the deputy Democratic leader, at a Monitor breakfast Tuesday.
The Constitution is silent on how presidential candidates should be nominated. "The Founding Fathers assumed that states would assign their electoral votes to individuals with strong local and national reputations," says Richard Baker, the US Senate historian.
The rise of party politics changed that calculation. Early in the 19th century, party congressional delegations, by default, selected the nominees. The chaotic election of 1824, which gave rise to the modern Democratic Party, also led to the creation of party nominating conventions outside Congress.
But the role of lawmakers and other party professionals in presidential nominating conventions has shifted over time. The nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not won a single Democratic primary, in 1968 set off a backlash among party activists. The primary and caucus system they set up, including rule changes as to who could attend the Democratic Party's national convention, marginalized the party professionals, including members of Congress.
Party leaders say it contributed to a landslide loss for Democratic nominee George McGovern in 1972. "One of the major unintended consequences of reform was that members of Congress and other elected officials of the party weren't going to convention anymore," says Rep. David Price (D) of North Carolina, who helped draft party reforms creating a system of unpledged degates, now known as superdelegates, in the 1970s.
"Some of us thought that the convention had become a total reflection of candidate [voter] preferences and it would be healthy to have a group of delegates who could become brokers if the occasion should arise," he adds.
At the time, no one anticipated that the unpledged delegates would plunge into the pledging process. "But I do think the addition of the so-called superdelegates is a change that has had a desired effect: bringing the elected officials back to the convention," Representative Price says.
On Capitol Hill, the chase after superdelegate support has been unrelenting since summer. So far, 81 members of Congress have endorsed Senator Clinton, 49 have endorsed Senator Obama, and 15 have endorsed former Sen. John Edwards (D) of North Carolina.
"I've had inquires from the different camps, but I'd like to make the decision at the end of the process," says Tom Allen (D) of Maine, who is running for the Senate in 2008. "There's some advantage to being the last to make a decision, if it comes down to that. But it would be better for the country to have it settled earlier."
Rep. Melvin Watt (D) of North Carolina, who has endorsed Mr. Edwards, says he and other superdelegates will continue to assess the race. The advantage of superdelegates is that "generally we're in step with the electorate. We can play that role with less emotion," he says.
But in no case could the professional delegates recreate the smoky backrooms that produced presidents in the past. "The superdelegates could wind up divided and find it as difficult to come to consensus as the public," says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
"But they're particularly sensitive to the electoral implications" for other Democratic candidates, he adds. Recent decisions of moderate Democrats, such as Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri and Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, to endorse Obama, for example, could reflect an assessment of how a Clinton ticket could rile up the GOP base and damage prospects for the rest of the Democratic ticket.
"We bring a knowledge to this selection process," says House majority leader Steny Hoyer, also at the Monitor breakfast Tuesday.
"What we have really done is leavened the process with those who bring the direct views of people elected in a caucus or a primary with those who have had long-term experience for the most part with these candidates," he adds.