As both the Democratic and Republican primaries tighten, political junkies like me will start tallying up how many delegates each candidate has. (After last night, the interactive MSNBC toteboard shows Obama with 63 delegates to Clinton's 48. Meanwhile Romney has 59 delegates, compared to Huckabee's 40. "Frontrunner" McCain has only 36.)
But don't bother paying too much attention to those running totals. It's the "superdelegates" (for the Dems) and the "unpledged delegates" (for the Republicans) who may well decide both races. (To learn more about how the two parties choose and allocate delegates, consult the SFgate.com article that tries to make these murky rules comprehensible.)
Awarding someone superdelegate or unpledged status is a way to reward party bigshots, at the same time it also means that they could swing the outcome. When Governor Janet Napolitano endorsed Barack Obama, not only did that win him a few positive headlines when the announcement was made, but she's also a superdelegate whose vote therefore can be counted in his column if there's a convention showdown.
According to the Minnesota Monitor,the Dems have assigned 796 (19%) of the 4,090 primary delegates "superdelegate" status. The Republicans have 463 unpledged delegates (19%) out of 2,380 total (and of those unpledged, 123 are members of the Republican National Committee). Bottom line is that one out of every five votes at the convention will be cast by people who have no requirement to reflect the will of the voters.
The history of primary voting in the United States has long been a battle between democracy and power politics. Sadly, ever since the "power to the people" Sixties, the pendulum has been swinging back to giving party hacks more power, to the point where the system in place today makes the old Soviet Union look like a bastion of democracy in comparison.
I am old enough to remember seeing Mayor Daley's red-faced machinations to ensure Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee in 1968, even though I was watching him on a black-and-white TV. Revulsion at that kind of politics in the Sixties briefly made us a more democratic country. And, for the most part, primary elections since have not been tight enough for voters to realize how much our people power has eroded since.
This could be the year we will see how much we've lost. On the Republican side, imagine the kinds of games that the Establishment Republicans will play if Mike Huckabee comes anywhere near the number needed to be nominated.
The more dangerous and divisive possibility, however, is that Obama could be robbed of the nomination by the ruthless Clinton machine. Can't you see Terry McAuliffe threatening superdelegates with the political equivalent of homicide to ensure the final votes go Hillary's way?
Does anyone doubt that the Clintons would do this? Would they even flinch?
Is it just me or does today's Democratic race echo 1968?The entry in Wikipedia about that contest decades ago reminds us that we never had the chance to find out whether Bobby Kennedy would have received the nod. Before his assassination in Los Angeles during the California primary, Kennedy had won four primaries to Eugene McCarthy's five. Hubert Humphrey did not compete, instead using "favorite son" surrogates to gain delegates he could count on.
Some historians believe Kennedy's charisma would have carried him to the nomination. More objective observers such as Tom Wicker of the New York Times insisted that Humphrey had enough delegates to win and would not have given up the nomination no matter what.
On many levels, I worry that we could be watching a similar scenario unfold today. My biggest fear is that we will return to the political bloodshed of the past. There is something unnerving about having Caroline Kennedy and (probably) Teddy Kennedy, the remaining icons of the Jack/Bobby legacy, endorse Barack Obama.
My second-biggest fear is that we will again see youthful idealism crushed by politics as usual if the relentless Clinton machine is not derailed in time.
This past week proves that the Clintons have no shame. The next few weeks will show whether women voters can see past their gender loyalty to Hillary Clinton and deny her the delegates needed to make it close enough so that the superdelegates matter.
Anyone who cares about the future knows those young people behind Barack Obama last night are the emerging heart of the Democratic Party. I don't want to play Cassandra and jinx the outcome, but if Hillary Clinton ends up winning the nomination by manipulating the superdelegate count, she and Bill will preside over the death of the Democratic Party.
On the one hand, I am energized at the thought that hope will triumph. On the other hand, however, I can feel my heart in my throat.