• Allon Advocacy

Demystifying the Democrats' Delegate Process

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) enters tonight's debate in Nevada as the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential race national polling. But that may not translate to frontrunner status in the race that really matters.

Though he’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last several months, today we finally can say former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is in the Democratic presidential primary race. After skipping the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary altogether – two mainstays of presidential politics for decades – he will be on the Democratic debate stage tonight for the first time in advance of Nevada’s caucus voting Saturday.

Bloomberg seems to be focusing his attacks on New Hampshire primary victor Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). In fact, even though he has one fewer pledged delegate at this point than South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, most news outlets and rival campaigns are treating Sen. Sanders as the frontrunner. In fact, this morning Axios reported that Kevin Sheekey, one of Bloomberg’s top advisers, said, “[I]f the state of this race remains status quo … Bernie is likely to open up a delegate lead that seems nearly impossible to overcome.”

The Democratic delegate system is complex and confusing but, after only two contests, is it really possible to say Sen. Sanders is on his way to an insurmountable delegate lead?

The simple answer is: no. But first, let’s discuss how the Democrats’ presidential nominating system works.

Unlike Republicans, who in 2016 awarded all of the delegates up for grabs in a state’s primary or caucus to the statewide popular vote winner, Democrats in 2020 award their pledged delegates on a proportional basis. So, for example, if there were two candidates on the ballot (and this year, of course, there are far more) and both received 50 percent of the vote, they would evenly share the number of pledged delegates in that state. If the popular vote were more lopsided, so too would be the delegate count from that contest.

But it gets more complicated. Under the Democrats’ rules, to get any delegates from a state, a candidate must earn 15 percent of the statewide popular vote, or 15 percent of the popular vote in any single congressional district. If a candidate walks away with less than either of those—as former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) did in New Hampshire—they do not earn a single pledged delegate. (Remember this fact—we’ll come back to it momentarily.)

There are a total of 3,979 pledged Democratic delegates. A candidate needs 1,991 (50% plus one) to win on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention. Currently, Buttigieg has 22 pledged delegates, Sen. Sanders has 21, Sen. Warren has 8, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) has 7, and Biden has 6. The rest of the candidates still in the race each have zero. If any of these candidates drops out of the race before the Democratic National Convention, rules in each individual state dictate what happens to their pledged delegates.

Still following? Good, because it still gets more complicated. As the election website 270ToWin explained before the Democratic presidential primary kicked off, “Each state also has a certain number of automatic delegates, commonly referred to as unpledged or superdelegates.” This year, these delegates will make up about 16 percent of the total delegates—a significant sum. Automatic (or super) delegates typically hold special places in the party. For example, they could be members of the Democratic National Committee or an elected leader like a governor or member of Congress.


Superdelegates can vote for whomever they want, regardless of what the voters in their state decided in their respective primary or caucus. This year, unlike 2016, however, superdelegates will not get to have a say until the second round of voting at the Democratic National Convention. Only pledged delegates will vote on the first ballot. If no single candidate receives the votes of 1,991 pledged delegates at that time, superdelegates will get to step up and—in dramatic fashion—all delegates instantly will become “unpledged.” On the second ballot, as 270ToWin explains, no matter what the voters of their state determined, every single delegate gets to decide for himself or herself who should be the Democrats’ nominee in a contested convention.

Keep all of this in mind as we turn back to that assertion from the Bloomberg campaign: given this confusing delegate system, is it true that Sen. Sanders’ momentum soon will be “nearly impossible to overcome”?

Not quite.

While the most recent surveys indicate Sen. Sanders is leading or tied going into the Nevada and South Carolina nominating contests this week and next, and has a big lead in California, which votes on March 3 (Super Tuesday), the senator could run into trouble on in other states voting that day.

According to Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, six of the states voting on Super Tuesday are in the south (Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) and together “they contain more pledged delegates (584) than California (415).” Brown says when Sen. Sanders was up against Hillary Clinton in 2016 and there were far fewer Democrats in the field, the senator “underperformed” in the south. That, she said, suggests “he is unlikely to reach the 15 percent threshold in the popular vote in southern states on March 3” and therefore “would not win any southern delegates and likely would be relegated to third (or worse) once all of the Super Tuesday contests are final.”

Other analysts also believe Democrats’ proportional delegate allotment could impede, or even halt, the senator’s momentum.

Liam Kerr, who heads a nonprofit for independent voters, reminded readers in a column this week that Sen. Sanders “is running in a Democratic primary that awards delegates proportionally above a 15 percent threshold,” which means he “could easily lose the nomination if he has only a plurality of the primaries’ popular vote heading into the convention.” New Jersey Star-Ledger political columnist Paul Mulshine said, “Even if [Sen. Sanders] keeps running up wins like the prior two [in Iowa and New Hampshire], he will end up well short of the 1,990 needed for a first-ballot victory.”

Nate Silver, election statistician and founder of the political website FiveThirtyEight, also believes there are “troubling” signs on the horizon for Sen. Sanders—as indicated by the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states in which, of course, the senator did incredibly well.

Among Silver’s reasons for skepticism are that Sen. Sanders failed to win the support of Iowa and New Hampshire residents who made their decisions just days before voting. Those individuals chose other candidates like Mayor Buttigieg and Sen. Klobuchar. Silver also says the results in Iowa suggest Sen. Sanders is very few voters’ second favorite, meaning that if a candidate or two drops out between now and Super Tuesday, it is unlikely those voters will move into his camp.

To be sure, the latest polling—nationally, at least—shows growing momentum for the senator from Vermont. Morning Consult released a national survey this morning that showed Sen. Sanders with an eight-point advantage over Bloomberg, who has rocketed up to second place and is followed by Biden and then Buttigieg (the mayor who, again, at this point is the delegate count leader). Morning Consult said Sen. Sanders is gaining support from Hispanics while Bloomberg is enjoying a mini-surge with African American voters. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey also released this morning had Sen. Sanders in the lead with Biden, Bloomberg, Sen. Warren (D-Mass.), and Buttigieg following in that order.

So, yes, there are favorites, but this race still is not decided. Especially since it is not national polls, but rather what voters in each state determine—and potentially, Democratic delegates—that ultimately matters.

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