In 1982 the Democratic Party created superdelegates to prevent future ambiguity over a presidential nomination that might divide the party, like it had after the contentious 1980 convention. In 1984 the superdelegates carried out their function by increasing Walter Mondale's lead of delegates over Gary Hart, and enabled Mondale to amass the delegates needed to secure the nomination.
Because superdelegates are unbound, and because there is no clear leader this year, they could potentially supersede the importance of the primaries.
If this sounds like the smoke-filled rooms of years ago, it's because superdelegates have the potential to be the modern equivalent. Now instead of mysterious politicos pulling the strings there are 796 superdelegates. While some are obscure, many are high profile politicians including Democrats in Congress, in statehouses, former congressional leaders, and even Hillary's husband, but only because he's a former Democratic president. The rest of the superdelegates are party activists at the state and national level.
This vanguard may sound similar to the Electoral College, but superdelegates weren't created with the intention of subverting the democratic process. Instead, superdelegates were supposed to smooth out the process, and avert the confusion that occurs on the national level. This year superdelegates could ward off the headache that Michigan and Florida represent for the Democratic Party. These states were stripped of their delegates for moving their primaries up, but future debate about whether to seat their delegates can be avoided, because superdelegates can anoint a candidate regardless of Michigan and Florida.
Because of the close race this year there's been a fight for superdelegates, unlike before, when they didn't come into play until after the popular vote when they reaffirmed the people's choice. Now each candidate is trying to use them to his or her advantage, with the two candidates disagreeing on the superdelegates' role in the process.
Barack Obama, who is leading in popular vote and elected delegates, argues for superdelegates to reflect the majority. Hillary Clinton advocates independence for superdelegates, so that she could leapfrog into first. Clinton claims superdelegates were designed to counter extreme activists who'd push forth a candidate with no chance in the general election, except that Obama is not a fringe candidate. In fact, based on current polling, Obama appears more attractive to superdelegates because he has longer coattails.
Since Super Tuesday, Obama has been gaining momentum and superdelegates, while Clinton is receding on both counts, and has seen her superdelegate lead shrink to sixty, which is half of what it was a month ago.
In all likelihood Obama will win the nomination as superdelegates fulfill their purpose and put him over the hump. If a large-enough portion feels that Obama lacks a mandate, and decide to vote for Clinton, neither candidate would have enough delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot. A second ballot would free elected delegates and the nominee would be the product of a brokered convention.
This outcome would discount primary voters, but not solely because of superdelegates. The problem starts with proportional voting, which makes it hard for one candidate to pull away in a close election, and while superdelegates are designed to provide a majority, the process must be reformed to restrict the autonomy of superdelegates. The system should be adjusted to bound superdelegates by national, state or district results, and party activists should be removed from the process. Superdelegates should strengthen the voice of the people, and not serve as a means to silence it.
But it's all a moot point if one of the candidates drops out. I'm looking at you, Hillary Clinton.