The Democrats have a particularly complicated set of rules, which make it much harder for the candidates to figure out how to approach these primaries, and for the rest of us to figure out even what constitutes a win. This is not a system designed for either clarity or speed. I tried to sort some of it out here.
UPDATE: Commenter Malcolm raises a point that I didn’t deal with in my story:
But what happens if no one ends up with a majority of delegates after all the primaries and caucuses are over? How will the superdelegates vote? I don’t believe the Dem party has ever been in this situation before where the superdelegates determined the outcome, at least since the modern system was introduced. (I suppose originally the nominees were always chosen by “superdelegates.”)
They will indeed become more important the longer the race drags on. Superdelegates are a relatively recent addition to the nominating process, and in 1984, they were crucial to Walter Mondale shutting down the candidacy of Gary Hart. Neither of this year’s two remaining campaigns will say how many superdelegate commitments they have at the moment, but Clinton is estimated to have around 200, and Obama about half as many. What’s important to know about them is that they are no longer the establishment firewall they once were. In this week’s dead-tree TIME, I noted how hard the Clinton campaign is working to hang onto its superdelegate advantage:
Clinton still maintains a formidable edge with many of those party leaders and elected officials, including those who by virtue of their positions go to the party convention as “superdelegates.” But superdelegates are notoriously fickle. As a big Democratic fund raiser puts it, “They are the Claude Rains of politics; whichever way the wind blows, the superdelegates will follow.” And right now, the Clinton campaign is spending enormous effort holding onto the ones they have, with both Clintons staying in constant contact with delegates feared to be wavering.