Superdelegates Give Clinton An Early Edge

(CBS) The first caucuses and primaries are still months away, but Democrat Hillary Clinton already has a leg up in her bid for her party's presidential nomination thanks to the support of an obscure but powerful group: the superdelegates.

Created by the Democratic Party in 1984, superdelegates include members of Congress, governors, former presidents, Democratic National Committee members and other party leaders. There are 850 of them, which comprises nearly one-fifth of the overall delegate count. They can back any candidate they want and change their mind as often as they want. But right now, among those that are supporting or leaning toward one candidate, they are largely siding with Clinton.

A CBS News survey of Democratic superdelegates revealed that 184 of them are supporting or leaning toward the New York senator and former first lady. By a more than two-to-one margin, she tops Barack Obama, who is supported by 71.5 superdelegates. John Edwards is in third, with the support of 40 superdelegates. Trailing them are Bill Richardson at 27.5, Chris Dodd at 12, Joe Biden at 10.5 and Dennis Kucinich at 2. Superdelegates representing Democrats Abroad only get one-half vote each, accounting for the fractional support received by some candidates. Among those who responded to the CBS News survey, 236.5 were still undecided.

Female superdelegates were especially likely to support Clinton - 87 were supporting her, compared to 18 for Obama. Her advantage over Obama among men is smaller: 97 superdelegates to Obama's 53.5. African-American superdelegates also narrowly favor her over Obama.

While this support is important in securing the nomination - Clinton's confirmed backing gives her 8.3 percent of the 2,209 delegates needed to win - there are several caveats. Most important is that superdelegates tend to be more of a reflection of national polls than of who will actually win the nomination. They usually back the front-runner or the establishment candidate - this year, Clinton is both. But in 2004, Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt led John Kerry in the superdelegate count, only to see Kerry wrap up the nomination relatively quickly after his come-from-behind win in the Iowa caucuses. The superdelegates, focused on displaying party unity, rallied around their nominee.

The field of superdelegates itself is still very much in flux. Of the 850 superdelegates, 81 are "unpledged add-ons" yet to be named. And 7 of the named spots are vacant. Other states, like Florida and Michigan, have risked losing all their delegates, including superdelegates, by scheduling their primaries earlier than DNC rules allow.

But it is very easy to determine who some superdelegates are supporting, namely because Clinton, Obama, Dodd, Biden, Kucinich and Richardson, by virtue of their offices, are superdelegates themselves, and presumably backing their own candidacies.

CBS News and The New York Times contacted 619 unpledged delegates; 143 superdelegates have not been reached. Of the 619 reached, 31 delegates refused to complete the survey, yielding 588 completed surveys representing 585 delegate votes. The endorsements of another eight superdelegates were confirmed by other methods.

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