What Are Superdelegates?

Presidential debate
The close race between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (shown at a debate in Texas) in the 2008 primaries caused concern over the role superdelegates would play in choosing the party'­s nomination.
Ben Sklar/Getty Images

­When­ the 2008 campaign for president began, it wasn't such a big story that there would be superdelegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colo. Superdelegates have been at every convention since they were created through Democratic National Commi­ttee (DNC) rules in 1982 [source: CNN]. In previous contests, superdelegates haven't enjoyed much of the spotlight. But as the Democratic primaries whittled down the number of competitors for the nomination, a close race emerged between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Even as the end of the 2008 Democratic primary calendar wound down, the two candidates were neck and neck for the Democratic Party's nomination for president of the United States. Scores of primaries and caucuses, including those on Super Tuesday -- a day designed to establish a clear front-runner -- produced no obvious candidate.­

With the delegate counts for Clinton and Obama so close, it became clear that in the 2008 primary season, superdelegates had a huge impact on which candidate the Democrats nominate for the run for the presidency. Some Democrats publicly pledged to leave the party if superdelegates didn't follow the popular vote. "If the Democratic Party does not nominate the candidate … that the majority (or plurality) of its participants in primaries and caucuses want it to nominate, then I will quit the Democratic Party," wrote Chris Bowers, a member of the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee [source: Open Left].

The term "smoke-filled room" came back into vogue to describe the shady type of politics in which superdelegates could potentially engage [source: Block]. This image reminds us of politics before Progressive Era reforms, where an elite few could choose the candidate they wanted, rather than the one chosen by the people.

What is it about superdelegates that made some people so altogether nervous? Find out on the next page.