The Role of Delegates in the U.S. Presidential Nominating Process
Wednesday, February 6, 2008; 12:22 PM
In recent decades, the presidential candidates of the two major political parties in the United States generally have emerged during state-by-state primary elections and caucuses which occur in the winter and spring before a general election. Officially, candidates only become their party s presidential nominee after a vote is taken by party delegates to the Republican or Democratic presidential nominating conventions later in the summer. These delegates are supposed to take their cue from the voters who cast ballots during their states primaries and caucuses, though each party's rules make it possible for multiple rounds of balloting and significant horse trading if no candidate is able to muster a majority on the first ballot. In recent years, this has not happened. Since 1976, in fact, no major party convention has opened with the identity of the nominee in question.
This year's election could see a return to contested conventions, however, due to the highly competitive state of both the Republican and Democratic primaries. The Democratic Party s nominating process could be especially complex because its rules allow for a more proportional system of delegate voting and for the presence of superdelegates, comprised of each state s elected representatives in congress, who are obliged to commit to any particular candidate. In the case of both parties, the delegate system is aimed at making sure party faithful choose the most representative, as well as most competitive candidate to represent them in the general election. But even to those following the U.S. presidential campaign closely, the role of delegates in selecting the party nominees can be confusing.
What is a delegate?
Delegates are individuals chosen to represent their states at their party conventions prior to a presidential election. The rules for selecting delegates, which are dictated by the parties, can be dizzying the guidelines vary not only by party, but by state, and sometimes by congressional district. A party might grant additional delegates as a reward if a state has a recent history of supporting that party, for example. In other cases, delegates might simply be allocated to a state based on the percentage of votes that state is granted in the Electoral College.
At both conventions, delegates must cast their vote in favor of one candidate. If no clear majority is reached, they must continue voting until they do. During the primary process, the party is choosing their candidates, which is very different from the public choosing a candidate, says Norman Ornstein, an expert on U.S. politics at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. The goal is to narrow it down to the candidates who most represent the party, and who have the greatest chance of winning, says Ornstein. At least, he says, That s the theory. It doesn t always work that way. 1976 marked the last party convention that opened with the identity of the nominee in question. The 1976 Republican convention chose Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan. On the Democratic side, the last time delegates faced a contested nomination was 1960, when John F. Kennedy faced opposition from Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson.
Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan organization, says the delegate system is so complex because after most elections, the respective national parties go back and look at their rules and their system and try to make adjustments that they believe will give their party an advantage.
What is a superdelegate?
The Democratic Party has superdelegates, which include elected officials, like members of Congress, and party officials. At the Democratic convention, superdelegates account for twenty percent of overall delegates and are uncommitted and are not bound in any fashion to any one candidate, says Ornstein. In other words, they can throw their support to whomever they want at the convention.
The Democratic nomination process was altered to include superdelegates in 1984. That year, former Vice President Walter Mondale won the Democratic nomination with strong support from party stalwarts. Some experts say Democratic candidate George McGovern s landslide 1972 loss to Richard Nixon influenced the party s introduction of superdelegates. There was a view that the Democratic party had allowed the grass roots to become too empowered and that in too many instances, people whose job it was to get Democrats elected were being shut out of the process, says McGehee.
How does the Republican Party pick delegates?
Overall 2,348 delegates (Newsweek) will attend the Republican National Convention in Minnesota in September. All will have already pledged to whichever candidate won their state. To win the nomination, a candidate must win the votes of at least 1,191 delegates at the convention. The Republican Party rules for selecting those delegates vary from state to state. In some states, a portion of delegates is allotted to each congressional district, while in others, the entire state is allowed a certain number of delegates. Each state chooses six at-large delegates and three additional district delegates for each Representative that state has in the House. Each state can also earn bonus delegates if a Republican candidate won that state in the last presidential election, or if the state elected Republicans to Congress, the governorship, or state legislative majorities. A state can also gain bonus delegates if its primary election is scheduled after March 15.
The Republican Party used to have a largely winner-take-all system, meaning that whichever candidate won a given state would then receive all of that state s delegates. Now, Ornstein says, there are many winner-take-all states, but there are a substantial number of states, including the blockbuster one in California, that also are proportional. McGehee says that in a state like California, if there is a 51 to 49 vote, both candidates may end up with the same number of delegates in a proportional system. States using a proportional system allocate delegates to candidates proportionally to the percentage of votes that candidate won in the primary election.
How does the Democratic Party pick delegates?
Eighty percent of the 4,050 Democratic Party delegates will arrive at the convention having already been pledged to a specific candidate during the primaries and caucuses. The number of delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination is 2,025. The Democratic Party system was designed to be proportional, which could lead to SenSens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) ending up with roughly similar numbers, says Peter Beinart, CFR's senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy. Even the way it s done proportionally tends to lead to parity, in the sense that the threshold you need to get delegates is fairly low.
Any Democratic candidate receiving at least 15 percent of the vote in a given primary or caucus is entitled to a proportional number of delegates from that state. When John Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in January 2008, some speculated he might use the delegates he won in early primaries and caucuses to become a power broker of sorts at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. [W]ith a chunk of delegates, you can leverage what you ve been fighting for and standing for. You can raise these issues to where they should be on the Democratic agenda, David Bonior, Edwards national campaign manager told the New York Times.
What will happen to the delegates from Florida and Michigan?
Florida and Michigan chose to move the dates of their primary elections to earlier in the campaign season against the will of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The DNC only allows certain states to hold primaries or caucuses before what is known as Super Tuesday on February 5. Only the traditional early states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, and some states with special permission from the DNC, like South Carolina and Nevada, were supposed to hold their primaries or caucuses before Super Tuesday. To punish Florida and Michigan for disobeying party rules, the DNC said their delegates will not be seated at the Democratic National Convention.
This could change. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) won both Florida and Michigan, although none of the Democratic candidates campaigned in those states. Clinton is now fighting to allow delegates from those states to participate in the convention. In her victory speech after winning the Florida race, Clinton promised to do everything in her power to make sure that not only are Florida s Democratic delegates seated, but Florida is in the winning column for the Democrats in 2008 (CBS). Because both Michigan and Florida are likely to be battleground states in the general election, the DNC may choose to reverse its position on their delegates.
If the race remains close, the states could petition the DNC to hold their elections again after February 5. Clinton and Obama could also take the dispute to the Convention Credentials Committee.
What is the role of independents?
Because independent voters are unaffiliated with any party, they do not as a group receive delegates or hold their own national nominating convention or meeting. However, more than half of the states holding primaries Super Tuesday allow participation from voters unaffiliated with any party. Some states allow voters to switch their party affiliation the day before an election, so that independents can choose to register as a Republican or Democrat if they support a specific candidate, says Beinart. In some states, it s clearly had an impact. Elsewhere, voters can pick whichever candidate they prefer, regardless of party affiliation. Still, a total of 18 states nationwide do not allow independents to vote in primaries at all (Sarasota Herald-Tribune).
Independents can play an important role in certain states, like New Hampshire, where a large number of voters are registered as independents, and in South Carolina, where 42 percent of the independent vote (AP) went to Sen. John McCainCain (R-AZ). Rep. Ron PaulPaul (R-TX) and Obama have also enjoyed a base of support from independent voters during this campaign.
The primary system is heavily filtered toward reinforcing the two major parties, says McGehee, making it very difficult for a third party or an outside candidate to succeed. Third parties, like the Green Party, can pick delegates for their own conventions. But because third party candidates rarely earn a large percentage of the primary vote, the candidates their delegates select tends to garner little national attention compared to the Democratic and Republican candidates.
What is a brokered convention?
For many years, party primaries and caucuses have produced the successful nominees and conventions served to formally anoint the presidential candidates on the first ballot. But in the event of a competitive primary process, delegates at a convention could have more difficulty in reaching a clear majority of support for any one candidate. A brokering process then takes place, with multiple ballots a possibility. Though a brokered convention has not occurred in either party since 1952 when Adlai Stevenson won the Democratic nomination, some say it remains a possibility for either party in 2008 because of the closeness of both races. Ornstein says a brokered convention is more possible on the Democratic side, but he guesses there is only about a 30 percent chance of that happening. If at the Democratic convention in August there is no obvious winner, he says, votes could go to a second ballot. Obama and Clinton could easily split the delegates enough that you re left with nobody having a majority, he says.
Still, the superdelegates were put in place partly to avoid exactly a brokered convention, Beinart says. Superdelegates can put someone over the top with votes in order to prevent deadlock. As for John Edwards, Ornstein says the chances that he will play the role of power broker with his convention delegates are relatively small, and says it could only happen if delegates are closely divided between Clinton and Obama.