Image: Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton
Chris Carlson  /  AP file
Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton square off in the Wisconsin primary Tuesday, followed by big contests in Ohio and Texas on March 4.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 2/16/2008 3:34:08 PM ET 2008-02-16T20:34:08

Here’s a news flash: superdelegates do change their minds.

On Thursday Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a Democratic superdelegate, seemed to rescind his pledge to cast his vote at the convention for Sen. Hillary Clinton, switching instead to Sen. Barack Obama.

Democratic voters in his district supported Obama in the Feb. 5 primary, and, Lewis indicated to the New York Times that he would too.

But on Friday the Lewis situation became a muddle when his spokeswoman told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the New York Times account was not accurate.

All this came just months after an October appearance with Clinton when Lewis said, “Without reservation or any hesitation I am proud to endorse Hillary Clinton to be the next Democratic nominee….”

News of Lewis' possible reversal comes even as party critics warned that superdelegates would defy or override the will of primary and caucus voters.

Under rules in effect since 1984, governors, senators, House members and party activists who are members of the Democratic National Committee are entitled to a vote at the convention.

Free to choose
Dubbed “superdelegates,” they’re free to endorse whomever they want, to switch back and forth between contenders, or to wait until the convention to make their choices.

Delegates elected in primaries are pledged to cast their vote at the convention for a particular candidate, but party rules don't require them to do so. The party rules ask such delegates to “in good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.”

While Lewis has been heard from, no word yet from the superdelegates who have endorsed Obama but whose states’ Democratic primaries were won by Clinton. Some examples: Sen. Edward Kennedy of Mass., Rep. Steve Rothman of New Jersey and Rep. Adam Schiff of California.

Superdelegates are not chosen by means of primaries or caucuses, but are delegates by virtue of the elected offices they hold.

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On Friday Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe sent an e-mail to Obama supporters telling them that the campaign was “doing the work of reaching out to superdelegates and making sure as many as possible support Barack Obama.”

He urged Obama fans to “share your story” by writing or calling the superdelegates in their congressional district and state to lobby them.

Video: Meet a superdelegate On Saturday, Clinton campaign strategist Harold Ickes told reporters, “Notwithstanding all the controversy ginned up by the Obama campaign” about the superdelegates, “both of these candidates are going to need them in order to nail down the nomination.”

Referring to primaries still to come in Wisconsin, Texas, and other states, he said, “There are 18 jurisdictions still to select delegates, with 1,075 delegates still be selected from those jurisdictions.”

“Neither candidate at the end of this process will have enough pledged delegates to clinch the nomination," he argued.

Ickes said the superdelegates who are governors, senators, and House members “are as much in touch and probably more in touch with what is going on politically and issue-wise than delegates who are basically recruited by presidential campaigns.”

Ickes' comments came after several days in which Moveon.org (which is backing Obama) and Democracy for America, founded by Howard Dean and now headed by his brother Jim, have raised a ruckus about the superdelegate system.

“Will party insiders overturn your vote?” asked Charles Chamberlain, the political director of Democracy for America.

“Superdelegates have the power to overturn the popular vote and crown a different winner,” he said. “That's right, if superdelegates don't like who you choose to be our nominee, they can overturn your vote.”

He envisioned “back room deals of the party elite.”

“The superdelegates could ignore the will of the voters and pick whichever nominee they want,” said Moveon.org in an e-mail Thursday.

Several of my readers are up in arms, too.

“I thought this was a democracy, but I guess it’s only a democracy if you’re super enough to impress the people in power,” grumbled one reader in an e-mail Wednesday. “I don’t recall ever voting to put these people into power or let them choose who I will be able to vote on for president.”

Just like Putin's Russia?
“We're worried about Russia and Putin! About democracy being stolen from the Russians. We need to worry about the thief’s (sic) in Washington,” declared another reader.

“I hope that the superdelegates have no input on this democratic selection,” said a reader from Canada. “The people should decide. Whoever has the most votes (delegates) should be the nominee!”

OK, everyone, let’s review the basics, or learn them for the first time, as the case may be:

  • To our Canadian friend: Whoever has the most votes (delegates) will be the Democratic nominee.
  • Superdelegates are delegates; they have a vote at the convention just as other delegates do.
  • Again, the superdelegate system has been in effect for nearly 25 years. The system of using superdelegates was decided in a democratic process by the members of the Democratic National Committee. Those members are chosen by party activists all across the nation.

“I don't know of any DNC member trying to change the system in 2004 or since,” said DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton.

No complaints in 2004
The supposedly “undemocratic” nature of the system did not seem to occur to Democratic voters in 2004, when, for instance, superdelegates Sen. Tom Harkin and Al Gore endorsed Democratic front-runner Howard Dean.

Theoretically, the superdelegates could, as Moveon.org says, “ignore the will of the voters.”

What happened with Dean’s superdelegates in 2004 after he finished a disappointing third in the Iowa caucuses is instructive.

Quietly in some cases, openly in others, many of Dean’s superdelegates abandoned him. It was “the bandwagon effect.” They wanted to go with the winner: Sen. John Kerry.

That same phenomenon may be happening now with Lewis and others who have reneged on their pledges of support for Clinton.

Meanwhile, some of the superdelegates are waiting to see what happens when voters cast their ballots in Wisconsin on Tuesday and in the contests that follow in other states.

“I have been approached by both sides,” said Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga. “I think I’m going to sit tight and just see how things progress in the different primaries that we’re about to have over the next couple of months.”

He added, “I’m hopeful that this will be resolved before it gets to the superdelegate level.”

And as in 2004, it might.

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