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The Role of Delegates in the U.S. Presidential Nominating Process

Author: Joanna Klonsky, Associate Editor
Updated: June 10, 2008
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

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 that 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 horse trading if no candidate is able to gain a majority on the first ballot. But since 1976, no major party convention has opened with the identity of the nominee in question.

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For a time, many analysts speculated one or the other of the 2008 party contests would do just that, due to the closely contested Republican and Democratic primaries. The Democratic Party's nominating process proved especially complex because its rules allow for a more proportional system of delegate voting and for the presence of "superdelegates," comprising each state's elected representatives in Congress, who are not 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 theU.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." The last party convention that opened with the identity of the nominee in question was in 1976 when Republicans 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."

Who are the delegates?

Delegates are often party activists, local political leaders, or early supporters of a given candidate, says Anthony Corrado, government professor at Maine's Colby College. Presidential campaigns often encourage "a member of a county board or a local state representative or a state senator" to run for their slate of delegates, says Corrado, "because they help to bring their own political constituencies or they're a recognizable name." Delegates can also include members of a campaign's steering committee. In some cases, delegates are long-time active members of their local party organization, and running as a delegate is "one of the rewards for their service to the party over the years," says Corrado.

The final list of delegates and their campaign affiliations is public, as is a record of their votes at the conventions. In the end, says Democratic strategist Tad Devine, "individual campaigns have a candidate right of refusal," meaning they can reject a particular delegate for their campaign. Campaigns try to ensure that delegates "are, in fact, true partisans who support a particular candidate," says Devine.

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, an estimated 2,380 delegates (CNN) will attend the Republican National Convention in Minnesota in September. Most 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. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) reached that benchmark in March 2008, becoming the Republican Party's presumptive nominee.

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 ten "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.

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 4,119 delegates will arrive at the Democratic National 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 2,118 (USA Today). The Democratic Party system was designed to be proportional, which could have led to Sens. 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.

In states like Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, the Democratic delegate selection process is integrated with the primary voting process. "People actually go and run on a slate as a delegate, and if their candidate wins the election, they can themselves win the election as a delegate based on their own votes that they received in the primaries," says Democratic strategist Devine. The local political organization generally decides which potential delegates appear on the slate, though whether that decision is made by the county, congressional district, or state level varies from state to state, and by the stage in the electoral process.

Some states, such as New Hampshire, have pre-primary caucuses before the election attended by people who support a particular candidate. Caucus attendees select a slate of delegates who are then pledged to their respective candidates. "Let's say there was a congressional district that had six delegates, and the Obama side won three delegates and theClintonside won three delegates," says Devine. "The slating at the preprimary caucus would determine an order of delegates from first to sixth. The people who were slated first, second, and third for each candidate would become the delegates."

Other states have a similar caucus system, but instead of holding the caucus to select the delegates before the primary, they hold it afterward. In these cases, caucus-goers already know how many delegates each candidate will be awarded and can select delegates to attend the convention.

In states with caucus systems, like Iowa, caucus-goers elect delegates from separate precinct caucuses to their county conventions. Then, delegates to the county conventions elect delegates to the state convention caucuses. Eventually, these caucuses elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention, "and they will divide along the lines of candidate preference," says Devine. "When we finally get to the end stage of the process, those remaining delegates will then elect national convention delegates."

What will happen to the Democratic 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 allowed 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.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) won both Florida and Michigan, although none of the Democratic candidates campaigned in those states. Clinton fought 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 (CBS) to "make sure that not only are Florida's Democratic delegates seated, but Florida is in the winning column for the Democrats in 2008."

In May 2008, the Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) voted to seat all 128 members of the Michigan delegation, but each delegate will only receive a half a vote. The RBC also decided to divide the Michigan delegates 69-59 in favor of Clinton. Likewise, all 211 of Florida's delegation will be seated at the DNC, but with only one half of a vote for each delegate. The committee decided to seat the Florida delegates according to the January primary results, with 105 pledged delegates for Clinton and 67 for Obama, but with only half a vote for each.

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 that held primaries Super Tuesday allowed 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 CFR's Beinart. 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.

Independents can play an important role in states like New Hampshire, where a large number of voters are registered as independents, and in South Carolina, where 39 percent of the independent vote (CBS/AP) went to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Obama have also enjoyed a base of support from independent voters during this campaign.

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 tend 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 thought it was a strong possibility for either party in 2008 because of the closeness of both races. 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. It appears that neither party will have a brokered convention, as Obama and McCain were both able to attain the minimum number of delegates needed to clinch their respective party's nomination.

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