John Locher/AP/File
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton applauds while speaking in Las Vegas, Jan. 6, 2016. Now that Iowa and New Hampshire are in the rearview mirror, the Democratic presidential contest shifts to markedly different terrain in Nevada, whose electorate is largely urban and diverse.

Are 'superdelegates' Hillary Clinton's secret weapon?

The purpose of superdelegates was to save voters from political suicide, and while they have tended to follow public voting patterns in recent elections, 2016 could be different.

Does Hillary Clinton have a secret weapon in her battle for the Democratic presidential nomination – “superdelegates” already pledged to support her?

Well, yes, yes she does. But in the end, they probably wouldn’t tip the balance in a close race with rival Bernie Sanders.

Superdelegates aren’t delegates with special powers. Their votes don’t count more than normal elected delegates. They won’t wear spandex or any kind of identifying costume at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Instead, the label “superdelegate” refers to a Democratic luminary – usually an elected lawmaker or party official – who qualifies automatically as a convention delegate because of his or her status.

Superdelegates don’t have to vote for the winner of their state’s caucus or primary. Under party rules, they can choose whom they please. For many of them, that’s already Mrs. Clinton. There are 712 superdelegates, and at least 394 have pledged to support her. Forty-four have announced they are for Senator Sanders. The rest remain up for grabs.

This disparity lessened the practical effect of Sanders’s big New Hampshire primary victory. The Vermont senator crushed the former secretary of State at the polls. He won 15 pledged delegates with this victory to her nine.

But Clinton had previously won the endorsement of six of New Hampshire’s allotted eight superdelegates. That means the net outcome of the race was a tie: 15 votes each on the Philadelphia floor.

What’s the origin of the less-than-democratic superdelegate practice? Roughly speaking, it’s a reaction against the perceived chaos of the party’s open nomination process from 1972 through 1980.

Post-1968 reforms had stripped party leaders of their old power to greatly influence the nomination. So in 1972, Democratic voters chose liberal Sen. George McGovern. Democratic elites weren’t happy, foreseeing – correctly – that he’d get crushed.

Nor were they pleased by the rise of outsider Jimmy Carter. Many thought a stronger candidate could have defeated Ronald Reagan in 1980, or at least headed off the divisive primary challenge of Sen. Edward Kennedy.

The DNC Empire wanted more say in the process, and party leaders used the Reagan win as an occasion to fight back. In 1984, a Democratic commission chaired by Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina proposed a number of reforms, including superdelegates to act as a moderating force.

“We must also give our convention more flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and, in cases where the voters’ mandate is less than clear, to make a reasoned choice,” Governor Hunt said at the time.

Today, Clinton or Sanders will need to win 2,382 votes on the convention floor to be named the party nominee. As noted, Clinton has a big lead in superdelegates, meaning she’s got a wide lead at the moment, despite winning Iowa by only a whisker and losing big in the Granite State.

This has outraged many Sanders supporters and amused some Republican pundits, who say it undermines the Democratic charge that requiring identification at the polls disenfranchises voters.

“All those Democrats voting in New Hampshire may not have had as much impact on the process as they thought they did,” writes Jim Geraghty at the right-leaning National Review.

In the past, however, superdelegates haven’t overturned primary and caucus results. This became an issue in 2008, when Barack Obama’s slim lead in pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses seemed threatened by Clinton’s superdelegate supporters.

But unlike pledged delegates chosen by voters, superdelegates aren’t bound by rules to vote for anybody. Those who currently support Clinton have endorsed her, but endorsements aren’t forever, particularly if the endorsee is struggling.

So the 2008 superdelegates went along with the people’s choice of Mr. Obama as the party standard-bearer.

“Superdelegates have basically served to ratify the choice of primary voters since 1984,” wrote political scientist Josh Putnam of the University of Georgia, perhaps the leading expert on US presidential nomination rules, in 2009.

To some extent, this has eroded their reason for being. But party officials like a nice hotel room, floor access passes, and a feeling of importance as much as the next person. That’s a big reason the practice has continued.

Past practice does not guarantee future results, it’s true. Some pundits think superdelegates could matter this time. Sanders was not even a Democrat until the beginning of the party race. This might cause resentment among longtime Democratic lawmakers.

Plus, some members of the Democratic elite see Sanders as unelectable due to his self-proclaimed democratic socialism and age, among other factors. Why step aside and allow him the nomination?

“They probably see this as an example of why superdelegates were created in the first place. If the voters want to commit political suicide, the party leaders can step in and restore reason,” writes Martin Longman at the Washington Monthly, sarcastically.

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