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So what is a super delegate?

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Congresswoman Lois Capps is a super delegate. Basically, that means she’s part of an elite group that could decide the Democratic presidential nominee for 2008—but what does it really mean? Honestly, what is a super delegate?

The term popped up seemingly overnight, when it became apparent that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama was likely to pull the necessary 2,024 delegate votes needed to win the nomination—those delegates are allotted based on the popular vote of the area they represent.

If there’s no clear winner, the super delegates will essentially decide, voting only according to their conscience.

Let’s back up. The super-delegate system has roots in the ’60s, but was essentially created in the early ’80s as a sort of check-and-balance system within the Democratic Party. It’s also very useful in a run-off scenario, like the current primary.

For a Democratic candidate to win the party nomination, he or she must secure a minimum 2,024 delegate votes of a possible 4,047. Those minimum delegates are like bonus points; they’re secured by winning 15 percent of the popular vote in a geographic area. The delegate system is an alternative to the winner-takes-all approach—for example Hillary won more popular votes than Obama in California, but instead of winning the entire state, she just won more delegates than Obama (203 as opposed to 167). Those delegates are now considered “pledged” to their respective candidates.

Super delegates are unpledged, meaning they aren’t bound by the popular vote. They can vote however they want. Like every Congressional Representative, Capps is a de facto super delegate—one of almost 800. The rest are active and elite members of the Democratic Party. Eliot Spitzer, for example, was one, but the group also includes celebrated ex-politicos such as former presidents and even one college student.

When there’s no clear front-runner, the super delegates are called to vote. Like so many other firsts in this election season, this would be the first such call.

“I was really hoping that we could get a winner without a vote,” Capps said about the looming decision.

Capps recently endorsed Obama, a move that aligns with the popular vote in her district. But she doesn’t have to stick with that decision. In fact, she said, she’s prepared to change if the popular vote swings in the opposite direction.

There’s no pep talk for super delegates, about how they should vote. Capps said that she’s been approached by her constituents and colleagues who want to talk to her about one candidate or the other.

“The super delegates should only ratify the popular vote,” Capps said. “We should only confirm what the public wants.

“Some people believe that we should just listen to our hearts,” she continued, “but really, we should all be speaking with the same voice. I have endorsed Obama, but I have to be prepared to change my mind.”

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