Superdelegates, it seems, may end up as the key to the nomination. But they're also a tricky issue -- since superdelegates are not bound to any candidate, not pledged to vote according to the results of any democratic process, they're easily painted as fundamentally undemocratic, and a race truly decided by them might be hotly disputed. So the campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are being careful about what they say when it comes to superdelegates and how they should vote come the Democratic convention.
Perhaps Obama's campaign isn't being careful enough, though, because lately it has been sending out contradictory messages. On the one hand, it's calling for the superdelegates to reflect the will of the people (problematic for the Obama campaign if the will of the people is decided state by state, since it lost in Massachusetts, from which some of its most prominent superdelegates hail), and on the other it's suggesting that the superdelegates should fulfill their traditional role and vote for what they think is good for the Democratic Party and the country.
For example, at a candidate forum Monday, Obama himself said,
We've got to make sure that whoever wins the most votes, the most states, the most delegates, that they are the nominee. I think it would be problematic if either Senator Clinton or myself came in with having won the most support from voters, and that was somehow overturned by party insiders. I think the people would feel as if the voters' voices had been discounted.
Now, as you know, these are all allocated on a congressional district-by-district basis, and so, you know, how folks -- how superdelegates want to vote their conscience, that's up to them. But I do know that the bottom line is, our goal is to win the most delegates from the voters. And if we've accomplished that, I think we're going to be able to lay fair claim to the nomination.
But in an appearance on NBC -- also on Monday -- David Axelrod, Obama's campaign manager, seemed to contradict his candidate, saying, "I think that the role of the superdelegate is to act as sort of a party elder. These are elected officials from across the country and they're supposed to exercise their judgment as to what would be best for the party. And as they look at this, they need to decide who would be the strongest candidate for the party."
And asked about the prominent Massachusetts superdelegates who endorsed Obama, Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, Axelrod said, "I think they and all the superdelegates should vote according to what they think is best for the party and the country, and I think that we need the strongest possible candidate against John McCain. Every poll suggests that will be Obama."
The Clinton campaign has been doing its best to make hay of Axelrod's comments, posting them at the "Fact Hub" and bringing it up repeatedly in a conference call with top advisors and press Wednesday. (For the record, Salon was looking into the discrepancy before the Clinton campaign started making an issue of it.)
Asked by Salon for clarification of the two statements, the Obama campaign said there was no difference between them. In an e-mail, Jen Psaki, an Obama spokeswoman, wrote, "Barack Obama has won more pledged delegates, more states, and more votes than his opponent Hillary Clinton. Of course superdelegates are thinking on their own and will make decisions based on what they feel is best for this country, but with every contest that passes it becomes more clear that Barack Obama has the depth of support from not only voters with different backgrounds, but the unique ability to bring new people into the process. This is a strong argument for superdelegates as to why he is the best choice to face John McCain in November and we are confident people will come our way if we continue winning pledged delegates."