Who are the superdelegates?

Meet Jason Rae. He is 21 years old, and a student of history and political science at a university in Wisconsin. And he could decide the next President of the United States (which is why Barack, Bill and Hillary are being so nice to him)
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The Independent US

Who envies those famous superdelegates now? We have known for weeks that these are the folks who will eventually weigh up the pros and cons of Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton and tell us which one wins. It will be agonising. Nor is their unusual calling likely to make them popular. It seems to make a mockery of the entire primary process: all those millions of dollars spent, miles in the air flown, vocal chords ripped.

For older shoulders it is a weight that can presumably be borne. We know who most of these 795 superdelegates are. Jimmy Carter has had harder decisions to take, so has Ted Kennedy (and we know where he stands). These people are congressmen, governors and big-city mayors, a pretty grizzled bunch who are trained for this kind of thing. This is not a task for the faint of heart or the very young.

But what if your resumé does not include stints as resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or the governor's mansion in Boston or Albany? What if your world view does not extend far beyond undergraduate debates in the campus canteen of a small university in Wisconsin? What if you are a superdelegate headed for the party convention in Denver this August who has never even voted in a federal election before because you were still too young in 2004 to vote or drink in bar?

What if your name is Jason Rae and you are 21 years old?

The answer – and we know because we caught up with Mr Rae yesterday – is that you are not overwhelmed or losing sleep over the shocking mess of it all, you are gosh-darned excited. Well, who can blame a young man who finds himself about to play a starring role in determining the outcome of the most exciting nominating race in more than a generation, helping, indeed, to chart the course of history? "This is a presidential race the likes of which we've never seen," he begins, "and I don't know that we'll ever see a presidential race like this one again." You can't argue with that.

But first things first. What on earth is Mr Rae doing in a position like this when most students are thinking more about scores – of sports, exams and romance? The slightly built, bespectacled student, who is reading political science and history at Wisconsin's Marquette University, belongs to what is in fact a quite swollen class of earnest, slightly nerdy, young Americans who think nothing of getting involved in national politics at the earliest possible opportunity. And they do it with gusto.

Mr Rae was just 17 years old and still in high school when he made the bold decision to run for one of Wisconsin's spots on the Democratic National Committee and won. The opposition was formidable – a state lawmaker and a former leader of the firefighters' union – but after weeks of shaking hands, distributing leaflets and displaying his youthful enthusiasm, party members in the state chose him. And DNC members are automatically superdelegates with a reserved seat at the party convention. When this rarefied band finally gathers in the mile-high city, Rae, best we can tell, will be the youngest among them.

Of course, he couldn't have imagined back then how intense the whole experience would become in 2008. It has been more than 20 years since the Democrat superdelegates came into play when, at the convention itself, they faced a choice between Gary Hart, who had been wounded by revelations about seaborne extramarital indulgences, and Walter Mondale. They handed the crown to Walter. (Fat lot of good that did, of course. Ronald Reagan was duly elected to a second term.)

Life for Rae started to go mildly haywire in the days running up to the 19 February primary in Wisconsin, his state. Both sides, already thinking that the superdelegates may indeed become the final arbiters of the contest, started to pile on the pressure. One day a television network even flew him to New York to appear on a late-night chat show. Mostly it was the phone calls though. "I would say the most surreal experience by far would be receiving a phone call from President Clinton.

"It was a Friday night in January and I was getting ready to go to dinner with a friend. The phone rang, and I answered it in my usual way, 'Hi, this is Jason' and the voice at the other end goes, 'Jason please hold for the former president' and a minute or two later there was President Clinton greeting me. I wasn't about to say, 'Sorry I'm just about to eat'. I kind of stopped and was wondering if it was real or if I was dreaming or something. I talked to him for about 10 minutes, the strategy for engaging young people in the process, learning about what the Hillary campaign was doing."

He had other phone conversations too. Madeleine Albright, a Clinton backer and former secretary of state, called one day as did John Kerry, the 2004 nominee and an Obama champion. Kerry, he recalls, was especially nice. They even talked about the weather. (It was cold then.)

There have been face-to-face meetings too. He had breakfast one February morning with Chelsea Clinton, a young woman who can be very persuasive. Last December he even met Barack Obama in the course of a DNC meeting.

Back to that breakfast with Chelsea. That must have been pretty cool? "I honestly don't remember what we ate – I was too focused on strategy. We were at the University of Wisconsin cafeteria. People kept walking past us and nudging each other." Still, Mr Rae never lost sight of the seriousness of the exercise. He had a big decision to make. "None of the conversations were hard sell. I was very much split between Clinton and Obama. Either would do a great job leading the country forward." While Mr Rae is the youngest accidental power-broker in Wisconsin, he is by no means the only one. At 23, Awais Khaleel has two more years of wisdom under his belt, but he's another political science major whose theoretical studies have turned decidedly practical. "I certainly am not used to a schedule quite like that where I get to shake hands with Bill Clinton, and then in the next hour I have a midterm," said Mr Khaleel, who is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

His superdelegate status comes with his role as vice-president of the College Democrats of America, and has brought some gentle ribbing from family, friends and classmates. "We joke about how I hope that this isn't my 15 minutes of fame, that I peak at 23."

Having yet to endorse a candidate, Mr Khaleel is one of the undecideds that party chairman Howard Dean and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will try to pressure to get off the fence by mid June. Heaven forfend that the struggle should spill into the party convention in Denver in late August. What to do if you see that Mr Obama has amassed, as he will have done, more so-called pledged delegates (those apportioned according to the primary and caucus results) than Clinton but that she actually looks better equipped to beat Mr McCain?

If Rae seems relaxed it's because he announced his decision shortly after Wisconsin voted. For many reasons, his choice would seem to make sense. He has gone with Obama, who took Wisconsin, after all. And it is young people, most notably first-time voters like Rae, who still today are providing most of the fuel for Illinois senator's campaign. Going with Obama fits.

"I got involved with politics to make sure that young people had a voice at the national table, and when I look at the level of support that Obama is receiving from young people it's overwhelming. Knowing the level of support he has from people that have never voted before and want to get involved in the process, he will lead America in a new direction and inspire us."

And Rae thinks that because of the high profile of young voters this time, his being at Denver is vital. (He saved for the plane ticket for a year.) "It's important that superdelegates are representative of Democrats of a whole, and young people make up an important part of the Democrat electorate. It's extremely important that young people are heard."

For the jaded of this protracted nomination season, Rae is the perfect medicine. His ardour for Mr Obama has not dwindled, Bittergate and Pastorgate notwithstanding. "He provides a new direction for the country. I think he's a candidate they feel they can believe in," he says without a moment's pause. "Someone who's not been in Washington all his life and so can approach things from a different perspective." Nor is he dismayed by the new negativity of recent weeks. The tone, he says, will change.

Maybe it's time for Mr Rae to return the approaches he has had from the party. Might we suggest he take Mr Dean out for breakfast? If anyone can cheer him up, Jason Rae can. Gloom and doom may seem like the weather forecast for most Democrats, but this voter – no, this superdelegate no less – is a pig in muck. "It's a great experience to say the very least," he enthuses before hanging up and returning to his studies. (Four final examinations loom.) "I can't really explain it beyond that."

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