From left to right we have: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, Diane Feinstein, John Kerry, Dick Gephart, and Nancy Pelosi.
"Superdelegates" are Democratic party leaders and elected officials (e.g. Governors, Senators, Congressmen) who get to cast a vote in the Democratic National Convention. Unlike the pledged delegates who are selected based on the results of the primaries and caucuses and who must cast their votes accordingly, the superdelegates are automatically reserved a seat at the convention due to their superstar status and they're allowed to vote for whichever candidate they choose. There's no set criteria for the superdelegates to follow: some may think it's their duty to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote (but the popular vote where: in their state? in their district? or in the country as a whole?) while others might vote based on personal preference or on whom they think is the best candidate for the party.
While some of these superheroes are still uncommitted, others have publicly endorsed one candidate or another although there's nothing to stop them from changing their mind between now and the convention. Interestingly enough, it looks like Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was going to enjoy the status of superdelegate even though, after he lost the Democratic primary, he ran for and won his seat in the Senate in 2006 as an independent. But now he's been stripped of his superdelegate status because he's crossed the aisle and publicly endorsed Republican John McCain. What an asshole.
There are 796 superdelegates. As I said in a previous post, it looks like neither Obama nor Clinton can reach the magic number of 2,025 pledged delegates needed to clinch the nomination ahead of the Convention. Rather, CNN estimates that so far Obama has 1,404 pledged delegates and Clinton has 1,243. On top of this, again according to CNN, 207 superdelegates have come out in support of Obama while 237 have said they support Clinton. This would give Obama an overall lead of 1,611 to 1,480 or 131 total delegates.
This means that there are stll around 350 superdelegates on the loose who have yet to express an opinion about which candidate they'll vote for. That's more than enough people to tip the scales one way or another in this tight race. Likewise, remember that there might be conversions among the "committed" superdelegates between now and the end of August.
Who came up with these superdelegates?
This system was put into place in the early 1980s in order to check the nomination of a theoretical candidate who might win in the primaries and caucuses due to his disproportional popularity with far-left activists while he remained unpopular among the greater Democratic party and the general electorate at large. In other words, the superdelegates are a safeguard to keep some crazy from hijacking the nomination.
Is Obama an activist candidate?
Hillary's campaign has been attempting to raise the argument that her supporters are more representative of the party's grass roots while Obama-maniacs are more atypical. One interesting point they make is that many of the states where Obama scored big wins (including Iowa) were caucus states. Whereas primaries are basically carried out just like elections with voting booths and all that, caucuses can be very different. Depending on the local rules, caucusers might have to spend hours in a high school gym, signing lists (it's not a secret ballot), standing around, being counted, all while people wave signs in their face and pass out cookies. Why do states have caucuses? In some places its a tradition. Also it usually allows a state to schedule their race earlier in the election season
Hillary claims that her salt-of-the-earth blue collar supporters, Joe Lunchpail and Sally Punchclock, may have been underrepresented in caucuses because other time commitments such as work and family might have kept them from joining in on all this fun. This is part of the argument the Clinton camp is raising in order to justify a possible superdelegates intervention to tip the balance in her direction.
Caucuses may not be the most Democratic way to choose a candidate, but as it stands now its the only indication we have of who the people in these states want. If there's a problem with caucuses the solution is to switch over to primaries (not that this will ever happen somewhere like Iowa) or to make them more efficient and democratic. The solution is not to have the caucus and then discount the results...
Also, who says it's a bad thing if Obama's supporters are inspired and motivated to the point where they will go out of their way to cast their vote? Voter turnout is always crucial in an election, and if people are inconveniencing themselves to participate in a caucus then I'm willing to bet they will get off there arses to vote for Obama in November. Moreover, many of these Obama supporters are African Americans or young people -- two groups that favor Democrats and who are notorious for their low turnout on election day -- if Obama has inspired these people to participate in the democratic process this is a very good thing.
Where's the kryptonite?
The superedelegate institution doesn't seem very democratic. Their votes count as much as those of the pledged delegates, who represent hundreds of voters from the caucuses and primaries, and yet a superdelegate may not represent anyone other than himself. Thus if they were to reverse the results it may look like Tammany hall style backroom dealing or maybe like some kind of junta that decides on its own what is the will of the people. I like to think that most of them understand this, that the superdelegates will use their power for good rather than evil, and that thus they would only decisively intervene in an extreme scenario.
On an irreverant and wholly unrelated note...
The above picture brings to mind this question: who do you think was the hottest Superman?
Superfriends cartoon (c) Hanna-Barbera, DC Comics