In a campaign season that has defied prediction, the final twist could be this: Although Democratic turnout has been high, shattering records in some states, the odds are good that neither Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton nor Barack Obama will have accumulated enough delegates picked through primaries and caucuses to clinch the nomination. Unless some sort of other deal is brokered, the margin of victory would come from the elite segment of superdelegates.
How powerful are superdelegates? In California, 370 regular delegates were allotted based on the votes of more than 4.5 million people in the state's Feb. 5 primary. That means each of California's 66 superdelegates will cast a convention ballot equivalent to a regular delegate picked by more than 12,000 primary voters.
"This is a device to try to reduce the influence of one-person, one-vote," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen. "It's anti-democratic. It's specifically designed for the purpose of having the insiders . . . have some sort of final decision over who the nominee is going to be, regardless of what the voters want."
A recent tally by the Associated Press showed Clinton leading Obama in superdelegates by 77. Not all have committed themselves, and they can shift their allegiance at any time.
Some of the superdelegates are professional politicians; 27 governors are among them, as well as every Democratic member of Congress -- including Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana, indicted last year on corruption charges following an FBI raid that found $90,000 in a home freezer.
Another group consists of "distinguished party leaders" -- 23 elder statesmen and former high-ranking officials, including former Presidents Clinton and Carter and former Vice President Al Gore. Jim Wright, the former speaker of the House from Texas, also falls into this category.
Wright left Congress in 1989, a casualty of an ethics investigation into his financial dealings. Now 85, he teaches part-time and works for a life insurance company in Waco. As for his presidential preference, he said, "I want to support Hillary. That's my plan."
The bulk of the superdelegates are the 411 Democratic National Committee members. These include Millin of Wyoming, Marquez of Colorado and Stampolis of Santa Clara.
They've taken different routes to become members of the national committee. Millin, for example, said he became a member by virtue of serving as Wyoming Democratic Party chairman; Stampolis was elected by the California Democratic Party's executive board.
Many superdelegates already have become the focus of fevered public scrutiny. When one ditches a candidate for another, it can be a sensation. A report last week that Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, an icon of the civil rights movement, might abandon Clinton for Obama made national news.
Both candidates are targeting superdelegates in aggressive lobbying campaigns.
The controversy over the superdelegates' role in a brokered convention continues this weekend, as the Clinton campaign's asserting that the final results of the primary vote will be irrelevant if the nomination goes all they way to Denver.
Frankly, I think the campaign's on solid ground legally, as far as DNC party rules are concerned. On the left-wing American street, however, a brokered convention installing Clinton as the Democratic standard-bearer looks to be a sure recipe for a reprise of the tumult of Chicago 1968.
The irony's too rich, since the Democrats' 1968 defeat led to today's party rules, which in turn may lead to new street protests, which could in turn lead to counter-reforms to un-diversify the party's delegate selection process. Got that?
Karl Rove's got to be cracking up, as he watches the Clinton machine make the job a lot easier for Republican Party opposition strategists in '08.
See also the New York Times, "Old Clinton Ties and Voters’ Sway Tug at Delegates"; and also the commentary and analysis at Memeorandum.