Ah, how quickly time flies. My kid is 18 now, old enough to vote for the president of something much larger than his senior class in high school.
With all due respect to the privacy that he guards everywhere except with his friends on the Internet, our conversation that followed his first trip into the voting booth went something like this.
"How was it?"
"Did you have any questions?"
"Yeah, what are delegates?"
"Those are the folks who do the actual voting for the candidate you think you're voting for in the primary. Delegates are pledged to vote for the candidate that your vote tells them to vote for when the delegates go to the Democratic Party's convention this summer."
"Can I go to the party's convention?"
"Only if you're a delegate or a member of the media. Media personnel outnumber delegates by more than 3 to 1."
"Sounds like the Super Bowl."
"But, with fewer surprises. The political parties don't like to have surprises at their conventions. Party leaders want everybody to stick to the script, wear silly hats and wave signs like happy players in a big infomercial. But this year could be different, at least for the Democrats."
"So far, the race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has been tighter than your daddy's wallet. If neither of them clinches a big enough majority of delegates in the primaries and caucuses, the Democratic nominee may be decided for the first time by superdelegates."
"Superdelegates? Do they, like, wear capes and stuff?"
"No, but you might say that they have superpowers of political clout. They are not pledged to any particular candidate, so they are very popular and widely loved all of a sudden. The candidates and their friends, families and campaign staffs are sucking up to the superdelegates as if they are the most wonderful people on the planet. Chelsea Clinton even took one to breakfast."
"Bill and Hillary Clinton's daughter?"
"Yup. She recently had a nice chat over breakfast with the youngest superdelegate, a 21-year-old Marquette University student named Jason Rae. Still, he said he hasn't made up his mind."
"How do you get to be a superdelegate?"
"Why, are you looking for a cute date?"
"I know I embarrass you. I'm a parent. That's my job in life. Anyway, superdelegates come from the Democratic Party's elite. They're governors, members of Congress, former presidents and vice presidents. Even Chelsea's dad is a superdelegate."
"Really? Is that fair?"
"Sure. Officially he gets only one vote, just like any other delegate. Except, of course, he has enhanced abilities to prod, cajole, call in old favors and promise new ones to the other superdelegates if they promise to vote for his wife."
"Do Republicans have superdelegates?"
"Not really. Republicans focus on efficiency more than equity. They hold smaller conventions and more high-stakes primaries in which all of the state's delegates go to the winner. Democrats tend to award delegates in proportion to their percentage of the total vote. As the Republican strategist Mike Murphy says, it's like comparing social Darwinism with socialism. For the Republicans, it's survival of the fittest. For Democrats, it's 'share and share alike.'"
"So, the Republicans fight each other?"
"Sometimes quite viciously, but not for long. Look at how quickly Republican voters put aside their differences with Sen. John McCain of Arizona and latched onto him like kids to an overturned candy truck after he won a few primaries. Had former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney received delegates in proportion to his primary votes, as he would under the Democrats' system, he'd probably still be in the race."
"So, do Democrats get along better with each other?"
"Like herding cats. Angry cats. If the superdelegates appear to be putting a candidate over the top who didn't earn it in the primaries and caucuses, the hurt feelings could spark a civil war in the party. Ironically, the superdelegate system was started to help avoid such disputes."
"So why are you smiling."
"I'm a journalist. I'm imaging a convention where actual news breaks out. If the Democrats don't settle this contest peacefully, the only winners at their convention could be the people who cover it."