Most of us are getting a bit tired of the Presidential primaries leading up to the November election, but one thing we can’t figure out is: Who are these “superdelegates” that everyone keeps talking about? Another thing voters want to know: in the wake of the latest political sexual scandal, why do power and sexual shenanigans always seem to go together?

Election law expert James Gardner explains how superdelegates are different from regular delegates and why they matter so much this year. He says, “For much of our history, presidential candidates were selected by party insiders at a caucus or convention. Rank-and-file party members had no real involvement. During the 20th century, a movement arose to give rank-and-file voters more of a say in how nominees are selected. This led to the present-day system of direct primaries, in which all members of a political party are invited to vote for the candidate they prefer as the party’s nominee. The outcome of a primary election in any given state determines which candidate will be supported by that state’s delegates to the national party convention. These delegates are ‘pledged’ in the sense that they agree to support the candidate who wins their state’s primary election.

“The Democrats, however, have also created a class of ‘superdelegates.’ These delegates are a throwback to the old system. They are party insiders who go to the national convention to help decide the party’s nominee. But unlike pledged delegates, superdelegates are free to make up their own minds about whom to support. There are about 4,000 total delegates to the Democratic convention, and about 800 of them are superdelegates.

“The superdelegates may make a difference this year because the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is so close. After all the voting is done, if neither candidate has a commanding lead in pledged delegates, votes of the superdelegates could decide which of the two becomes the Democratic candidate.”

Who are these people who may end up deciding who wins?no matter who gets the most votes?and who tells them which candidate to vote for?

Gardner says, “The superdelegates are a collection of Democratic party insiders and elected officials. For example, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer is a superdelegate. So is Bill Clinton. So are dozens of Democratic senators and congressman. Technically, no one tells a superdelegate how to vote. However, many of the superdelegates may have political commitments or owe political debts that cause them to favor one candidate or another.”

Have superdelegates ever decided who the Democrats would nominate? Yes they have: “In 1984, during a close race for the Democratic nomination between Gary Hart and Walter Mondale, superdelegates played a role in swinging the nomination to Mondale. Mondale had been Jimmy Carter’s Vice President.

“The Republicans have created a different system designed to produce a decisive front-runner early in the process. This system reputedly was designed to prevent a repeat of the bruising 1976 convention fight between Ford and Reagan. The Democrats, on the other hand, designed their system to prevent early dominance by a weak candidate, as happened in 1988 with Michael Dukakis.”

In light of superdelegate Eliot Spitzer’s alleged involvement in prostitution (which is only one of a long string of recent sexual peccadilloes in the lives of politicians), despite his prosecution of prostitution rings, reporter Jeanna Bryner quotes psychologist Daniel Kruger as saying, “Leaders have so much power and influence, there are so many more opportunities for corruption, and to exploit the system at the expense of the people. [Also, people] hold leaders to higher moral standards than they would their fellow women and men. They want leaders who are ideally beyond reproach, someone who is a good and moral person and will do the right thing even when bestowed with this tremendous power.”

Bryner quotes business professor Scott Reynolds as saying, “I think what’s more at play here is just the notion of invincibility, that sometimes when things go well for us and just again and again and again, we’re successful, we start to believe that nothing can go wrong.” He thinks that Spitzer?and other politicians?may have unconsciously (or consciously) thought, “How could anything go wrong? This is me. I’ve been on the cover of magazines. I’ve won an election with the largest margin of victory in history. How could anything go wrong for me?”

Kruger agrees and says, “If he’s a regular client, he might not think anything of it because he’s done it before and nothing has happened, so it gets to be more of a routine and not something he’s consciously thinking [about].” In other words, in politics, doing bad things becomes business as usual.

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