Democratic candidates New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama have each won contests in a number of states, but what really matters is how many delegates they accumulate for the Democratic Party's National Convention in Denver in August.
The magic number of delegates needed to clinch the presidential nomination is 2,025. But neither candidate has gotten anywhere near that number in state voting. If that continues, it could eventually fall to so-called superdelegates to decide the Democratic race.
The 796 superdelegates make up nearly 20 percent of the overall Democratic delegation this year. They are members of Congress, governors, party elders and activists. Party officials created superdelegates in the early 1980s so situations such as a deadlocked convention could be resolved by party insiders, said nominations expert Henry Brady of the University of California at Berkeley.
"There was a concern that somehow there wasn't enough adult supervision actually by the rest of the party, and so one way to get more of the party politicos and pros into the process was to create these superdelegates," Brady said.
More than half of the superdelegates have already endorsed either Clinton or Obama. Because Clinton has snagged more endorsements, she is slightly ahead of Obama in the total delegate tally — even though he actually won more regular, pledged delegates. Both are assiduously courting undecided superdelegates such as Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
"I think the superdelegates will pretty much reflect what the voters have done," Brown said. "I think by August, one of the candidates will have begun to get momentum and have a substantial lead. I think the superdelegates will, in all likelihood, as we should, reflect that."
And if that does not happen?
Brown won't say when he will make an endorsement. But another senator, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, has already backed Clinton; he wants this race decided before it gets to the convention, although he is not sure that is possible this year.
"I don't think we want to go back to those wheeling, dealing, smoke-filled back-room days," Nelson said. "Right now, it looks like that's the only choice."
It's a choice that Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar also thinks should be made before the convention. She has yet to endorse anyone.
"I will not go through the summer — I can tell you that — without endorsing a candidate. I'm not a big believer in smoke-filled rooms," she said.
Obama told reporters Friday that the superdelegates should be guided by the results of the primaries and caucuses, saying, "My strong belief is that if we end up with the most states and the most pledged delegates from the most voters in the country, that it would be problematic for the political insiders to overturn the judgment of the voters."
But Obama added that superdelegates should consider who is best able to defeat Republican John McCain in November.
Clinton told reporters Monday that superdelegates should exercise independent judgment: "You can look at this state-by-state and see that there are a lot of people in states that I've won who support him, a lot of people in states that he won that support me. That's what superdelegates are supposed to do."
If anyone knows the sting of a superdelegate vote, it is former Sen. Gary Hart. Today he is an Obama supporter, but in 1984, when he ran for president, neither he nor Walter Mondale had won a majority of delegates going into the Democratic convention.
"I think virtually every superdelegate voted for Walter Mondale. In the teeth of polls the weekend before the convention, showing that Fritz ran 15 to 17 points behind Reagan and I ran 4 to 5 points behind Reagan, they still voted for Mondale, and Mondale lost very badly," Hart said.
If superdelegates must break a stalemate this year, it is unclear how bound these supposedly free agents will feel to any promises they have made to either candidate.