John Lewis Dumps Clinton for Obama: A Tipping Point?

| Fri Feb. 15, 2008 10:30 AM EST

If there are tipping points in presidential contests, this surely is a possible one: Representative John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights era, has flipped. He had endorsed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic contest. But on Thursday, Lewis, a superdelegate, said he would vote for Barack Obama at the Democratic convention.

Up to now, it's been the Obama camp and Obama supporters who have seemed the most worried about those hundreds of superdelegates who could decide the race. Many Obama fans have expressed the fear that these Democratic insiders will pour into some backroom at the convention and throw their votes to Clinton, even if she places second in the race for the pledged delegates produced by the primaries and caucuses. But Lewis, who cited the "sense of movement" and "sense of spirit" in Obama's campaign, is proof that the wind can blow the other way. Put simply, insiders like a winner.

Lewis noted that he could not vote against the clear wishes of the voters in his Georgia district, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in that state's Democratic primary. And as perhaps the leading African American member of the House, he was, with his opposition to Obama, in an awkward position. How could he stand against the first African American (and Democratic) candidate with a decent chance of becoming president? But it turned out not to be such a tough spot to escape. The Clintons must be seething. Not just because they have lost Lewis's vote but because of the signal he sends to other superdelegates committed to or leaning toward Clinton: Yes, you can.

Lewis paves the way for others who are also moved by Obama's "movement"--or, to be polite about it, motivated by his momentum. While Clinton appears to have a modest lead in superdelegates, it is far from insurmountable. And like Lewis, many of the superdelegates will look to see what's happened on the ground before deciding how to cast their votes. If Obama's march does end up winning more popular support than Clinton's, many of these powerbrokers will not want to be left out of the parade.

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