In the early 1980s, the Democratic Party endowed its leaders with extra voting power to help choose their nominee for the presidency, effectively creating “superdelegates.” Coming off the emasculation of party insiders after the disastrous 1968 convention in Chicago and dark-horse nominees throughout the 1970s, party leaders felt that more control had to be reasserted within the establishment hierarchy. Since the close 1984 campaign between upstart senator Gary Hart of Colorado and former Vice-President Walter Mondale, superdelegates historically have provided a means of avoiding a delegate deadlock caused by the popular vote during the primary season.

In contrast to pledged delegates, who typically must support the candidate that received the majority of the primary or caucus vote in their area or district, superdelegates are unpledged and free to support whomever they chose. This year, 796 superdelegates make up almost 20 percent of the entire Democratic delegation.

Most are elected officials – governors or members of Congress – and highly influential or active party members. However, membership to the Democratic National Committee is also open to citizens by party election.

Unlike Republicans, Democrats distribute the popular-vote pledged delegates on a proportional basis – if a candidate wins 40 percent of the vote in the state, they often garner 40 percent of the available delegates. As a result, in this tight election season, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama will have achieved the required 2,025 delegates needed to secure the nomination before the convention. Whether they choose to reflect the will of their constituents or endorse on their own, superdelegates will decide who goes on the ballot in November.