Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

If neither Obama nor Clinton has the nomination sewn up by August, it's down to the likes of Sandy, Heather and Fagafaga
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Sandy Opstvedt is a union organiser from Story City, Iowa. Heather Mizeur is a member of the Maryland state legislature, while Fagafaga Langkilde is president of Malama TV on American Samoa (a territory of 57,000 souls 1,600 miles north-east of New Zealand).

But as this extraordinary primary season battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama intensifies, they suddenly matter as much as Al Gore, Ted Kennedy and Bill himself. Like that trio of luminaries, our three unsung heroes are among the 796 unelected and unpledged "super-delegates" to the Democratic convention, who may decide the winner of the party's 2008 presidential nomination.

The US election process is colourful, often wildly exciting, and protracted enough to let everyone their say. The trouble is, it sometimes doesn't do the most important thing of all – deliver a result. That happened in the 2000 general election and it might well happen this year in the Democratic primaries.

With 17 state contests left, Obama has moved into a clear lead in delegates and, after his blow-out wins in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, the momentum is all his. He should add a couple more victories on Tuesday, when liberal Wisconsin and his birth-state of Hawaii go to the polls. But although Hillary Clinton is on the ropes, neither vote is likely to constitute a knock-out blow.

It would be a knockout were Obama to triumph in the two mega-states of Ohio and Texas, which vote on 4 March. But suppose he doesn't? Hillary may now be the underdog but at every turn in this enthralling race the conventional wisdom has been wrong. Suppose she wins in Texas and in Ohio (where the latest poll gives her a double-digit lead)? In that case it would be level pegging again.

As for either candidate reaching the absolute majority of 2,025, forget it. In Democratic primaries and caucuses, delegates are allotted on a proportional basis. Even if Obama were to win every remaining contest by a 60 to 40 per cent margin, he would still only have amassed roughly 1,780 delegates, well short of the finish line. At which point, enter the super-delegates.

At the Denver convention in August, super-delegates will have one vote apiece. They represent not states, but the permanent party establishment.

Of them, 221 are sitting Congressmen, 48 are sitting Senators, and 31 are state governors. All 397 members of the party's ruling body, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) qualify – among them Opstvedt, Mizeur and Langkilde. Then come 23 "eminent party leaders", such as Bill Clinton, Gore and the former House Speaker, Tom Foley, along with 76 "others".

Their existence stems indirectly from the brawl of a convention in Chicago in 1968, when the party leadership stitched up the nomination for Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, even though he had not won a single primary. Anxious to have results in future that reflected the wishes of real voters, the DNC brought in a system that allocated state delegates in proportion to a candidate's share of the primary or caucus votes.

But that move backfired when it helped produce contentious left-right nominating battles in 1972 and 1980. They, in turn, contributed to the landslide defeats of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, in his bid for a second term. So the DNC tried to restore some of the establishment's lost influence by creating a class of convention super-delegates.

The system worked perfectly in 1984. At the end of that year's primary season, Walter Mondale held a clear lead in delegates over challenger Gary Hart, but not enough for a majority at the convention. In the intervening weeks, Mondale wooed and won enough super-delegates to ensure a comfortable victory when the floor vote was held. Though he was later crushed by Ronald Reagan, you couldn't blame super-delegates for that.

And that (apart, of course, from the landslide defeat) is what party bosses pray will happen in 2008. When the last Democratic votes are counted in South Dakota and Montana on 3 June, they are banking on either Clinton or Obama having a clear lead, albeit short of an outright majority. In that case, super-delegates will throw their support to the candidate who is in front.

Already there are signs this is happening. Congressman John Lewis, hitherto Hillary Clinton's most prominent black supporter, said on Friday he could not go against the wishes of the district he represented in Georgia, and would accordingly switch to Obama. If Obama wins convincingly in Wisconsin and Hawaii on Tuesday, others may follow Lewis.

But what if Clinton stages a comeback and the two go to Denver more or less tied? Whatever his or her personal loyalty, no super-delegate will want to be party to a choice taken against the will of ordinary voters.

But there is an even worse alternative. If the super-delegates do not do their jobs, then Denver could produce the worst nightmare of party planners – a no-holds-barred legal fight to seat the delegations from Florida and Michigan. Both states were disbarred by the DNC after they defied a previous agreement and held their primaries before "Super Tuesday" on 5 February. Hillary, having won both primaries-that-weren't, wants Florida and Michigan delegates, 367 in all, to be reinstated. The Obama camp does not.

If it comes to the crunch, it is hard to see how Democrats can deny two large states their democratic rights. Whatever happens, however, it will be a mess – unless Sandy Opstvedt, Heather Mizeur, Fagafaga Langkilde and 793 other super-delegates step in first.