The Convention Delegate Process Explained

Brokered conventions (where no candidate arrives with a majority of the delegates) are predicted every four years, and every four years they don't actually happen. However, it does seem likely this year that we'll, at the very least, see a closer result than any since 1980 or even 1968. We might not even know who will win until the convention gets underway. Edwards could act as a kingmaker by throwing his delegates to Clinton or Obama and putting him or her over the top (his delegates would not be required to follow his instructions, but they will likely be personally loyal to him). Or, unelected superdelegates could throw the nomination to a candidate who comes in second in pledged delegates. Even if the result is known at the start of the convention, it might not be determined until June or July.

Despite the importance of the convention, the actual rules that cover delegate selection and behavior are obscure even to seasoned political watchers. While some of the rules are too complicated to get into even here (there are, for instance, actually three different ways pledged delegates are selected), what follows is a brief overview of the Democratic convention process: where the delegates come from, how they will be assigned, and what the process will look like from now until August.

On Aug. 25, 4,049 delegates from 48 states (more on the missing two later), the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and "Democrats abroad," will assemble at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Denver, Colorado, to pick the next Democratic presidential nominee. Of these, 3,253 (80 percent) will be pledged to a particular candidate and selected through primaries and caucuses while 796 (20 percent) will be unpledged party leaders known as "superdelegates." Delegates will vote, in more than one ballot if necessary, until one candidate receives at least half (2,025) of the total and becomes the nominee.

Pledged Delegates

Eighty percent of the total delegates, known as pledged delegates, are elected to represent a particular presidential candidate through caucuses and primaries in each state.

According to Democratic Party rules, all states, whether they hold primaries or caucuses, must award pledged delegates proportionally to candidates who receive more than 15 percent of the vote. The easiest way to understand this is to consider a state primary where Kucinich gets 10 percent of the vote, Edwards gets 20 percent, Obama gets 30 percent, and Clinton gets 40 percent. Under this scenario, Clinton, Obama, and Edwads get 40 percent, 30 percent, and 20 percent of the delegates awarded by the state while the remaining 10 percent are divided evenly among the three candidates.

This selection system has the odd consequence of disproportionately rewarding candidates who receive barely more than 15 percent of the vote, especially if a large fraction of the vote goes to candidates who do not meet the viability threshold of 15 percent since they get the same share of those votes as the top vote-getter.

To make things even more complicated, while states must assign delegates proportionally, they are free to decide whether or not voters must be registered Democrats to vote in the primary. Furthermore, it varies whether this decision is made by the party or the state, so one party may allow independents to vote in its primary while another does not. In California, for example, independents will be able to vote in the Feb. 5 Democratic primary but not the Republican one. Congressional Quarterly has a complete list of state rules here.

So far, Hillary Clinton has amassed 36 pledged delegates (0.8 percent of the total), Barack Obama has 38 (0.9 percent), and John Edwards has 18 (0.4 percent). A pledged delegate is theoretically bound to vote for the candidate he or she is pledged to and each campaign has input in who is chosen as its delegates. (Voters also get to vote on who some of the delegates are.) However, while the DNC rules state that "delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them," there is no actual requirement that they vote for the candidate they are pledged to.

Note that the current numbers of pledged delegates do not include Michigan which, because it moved its primary before Feb. 5 without DNC permission, will most likely not have any delegates seated at the convention. Florida, which votes next Tuesday, has also been stripped of its delegates. However, both Florida and Michigan will send slates of delegates to Denver and a battle could erupt at the convention about whether or not they should be seated.

South Carolina will assign 45 pledged delegates on Jan. 26 for a total of 137 delegates assigned before Feb. 5. On the 5th, 24 states with 1,688 pledged delegates will vote. The remaining 1,428 pledged delegates will be assigned over the remaining months until the last vote, in Puerto Rico, on June 7.


While voters will assign four-fifths of the delegates, the actual results could easily be decided by the remaining fifth -- superdelegates. The first thing to know about superdelegates is that there's nothing super about them. They get one vote at the Democratic National Convention just like pledged delegates.

So who are these mysterious caped candidate pickers? DNC members, all Democratic members of Congress, Democratic governors, and certain former party leaders. Essentially they represent both Washington insiders and the leadership of the state parties (see the full rules here).

The Democrats created superdelegates after the 1980 election, in a Washington-based backlash against the three previous national conventions, which had consisted almost entirely of delegates selected in primaries and caucuses, and which had chosen George McGovern (once) and Jimmy Carter (twice) to be the party's nominee. By adding members of Congress and the DNC into the mix, the Democratic powers that be hoped to provide more establishment input into the process -- in the hope said input would diminish the chances of such outlier and unvetted candidates as their recent nominees. The wager was that the establishment would help pick a more electable candidate -- though the party's next two nominees, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, while eminently acceptable to the establishment, proved much less acceptable to voters.

Clinton has amassed the pledges of 170 (out of 796) superdelegates while Obama has 77, Edwards has 28, and Kucinich has one. The number of pledged superdelegates varies depending on what source you consult, but the tallies given here are based on the running total compiled by the Democratic Convention Watch blog which uses only press releases or other public statements to assemble its list. CNN, CBS, and the AP list larger numbers of delegates as having endorsed, but rely on unclear methodology and do not list the names of each superdelegate who supports each candidate. (The DCW blog has full lists of superdelegates who have and haven't publicly endorsed.)

While the possibility that superdelegates would thwart the will of the electorate is brought up every four years, there is reason to think they might play a decisive role in this one. For instance, if Clinton and Obama each get 45 percent of the delegates from South Carolina and the Feb. 5 states, they would end up with about 820 delegates each. To reach a majority of the delegates (the amount required to win) using only pledged delegates, one of them would need to win about 85 percent of the remaining delegates. Of course, if one candidate emerges from Feb. 5 with a big lead the ultimate winner will be fairly clear. But since that very well may not happen we could be in for a fight for every last delegate that ends up being decided by superdelegates.

It wouldn't be the first time superdelegates functionally decided a democratic primary. In 1984 Walter Mondale had to line up 40 superdelegates in order to claim a majority after the California and New Jersey primaries since he didn't quite have half the delegates yet. In 1980 superdelegates weren't a factor, but Ted Kennedy tried and failed to overturn the rule that bound pledged delegates to vote for the candidate they were pledged to on the first ballot so that some Carter delegates could vote for him instead (no such rule exists this year). But, though these races did have some suspense, there has never been a truly unpredictable convention since the modern primary process emerged in the 1970s.

This uncertainty comes in part from the system of awarding delegates proportionally and in part from the sheer size of the Feb. 5 primary, but mostly it comes from the remarkable strength of the Democratic field. A brokered convention wouldn't necessarily be good for the party, but it would show just how hard it is to decide between two remarkable candidates.