ON the first Wednesday in June, the morning after the last day of voting in the 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the long, drawn-out battle that began with Gary Hart’s stunning victory in New Hampshire ended — but only after one last plot twist. I was Walter Mondale’s delegate counter, and I had stayed up all night to estimate the delegates won and lost in the five states, including California and New Jersey, that had voted the day before. I realized we were in big trouble. Mr. Mondale was not going to deliver on his pledge to be over the top in the delegate count by noon on the day after the last primary. He fell 40 delegates short of a majority.
We began a frantic morning of telephone calls to superdelegates, the party leaders and elected officials who only two years earlier had been given 15 percent of the vote in the Democratic nominating process. By noon, the former vice president had persuaded enough delegates to ensure himself the nomination. The superdelegates did the work they were created to do: they provided the margin of victory to the candidate who had won the most support from primary and caucus voters.
Now, a quarter-century later, the Democratic Party is once again engaged in a nominating process — this time between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — in which the margin of victory will be achieved only with broad support from the superdelegates, the nearly 800 party leaders and elected officials who become delegates not on the basis of votes cast in primaries and caucuses, but because of their status under party rules.
Democrats created these superdelegates after the 1980 election with several purposes in mind.
Party leaders had been underrepresented on the floor of the 1980 convention, which was the culmination of a bitter contest for the nomination between President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy that left our party deeply divided and contributed to the party’s loss of the presidency that year.
Many party leaders felt that the delegates would actually be more representative of all Democratic voters if we had more elected officials on the convention floor to offset the more liberal impulses of party activists.
But the superdelegates were also created to provide unity at the nominating convention.
They are a critical mass of uncommitted convention voters who can move in large numbers toward the candidate who receives the most votes in the party’s primaries and caucuses. Their votes can provide a margin of comfort and even victory to a nominee who wins a narrow race.
The superdelegates were never intended to be part of the dash from Iowa to Super Tuesday and beyond. They should resist the impulse and pressure to decide the nomination before the voters have had their say.
The party’s leaders and elected officials need to stop pledging themselves to either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama, the two remarkable candidates who are locked in an intense battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
If the superdelegates determine the party’s nominee before primary and caucus voters have rendered a clear verdict, Democrats risk losing the trust that we are building with voters today. The perception that the votes of ordinary people don’t count as much as those of the political insiders, who get to pick the nominee in some mythical back room, could hurt our party for decades to come.
The damage would be amplified if African-Americans or women, two of the party’s key constituencies, feel that a candidate who represents their most fervent hopes and aspirations is deprived of a nomination rightfully earned by majority support from voters.
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, and their campaigns, are pressuring superdelegates to pledge support to them before Democratic voters in the remaining primaries and caucuses have made their decisions. But Democratic leaders need to let the voters sort out which one of these two remarkable people will lead our party and, we hope, the nation.
After listening to the voters, the superdelegates can do what the Democratic Party’s rules originally envisioned. They can ratify the results of the primaries and caucuses in all 50 states by moving as a bloc toward the candidate who has proved to be the strongest in the contest that matters — not the inside game of the delegate hunt, but the outside contest of ideas and inspiration, where hope can battle with experience and voters can make the right and best choice for our party and our future.
Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist, was the chief political consultant to Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000.