March 2020

By Karen A. Tramontano

In the last few days we watched one of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates — Joe Biden, then well behind in delegates and counted out by most pundits — win more delegates than any other candidate in the race, including the previously presumed frontrunner, Senator Bernie Sanders. The question now is: who will be the Democrats’ nominee to challenge President Trump?

There have been many articles analyzing why former Vice President Biden won a huge victory in South Carolina’s primary, followed by winning 10 out of 14 state contests on Super Tuesday on March 3. That will not be the subject of this article. Instead, we will try to explain the somewhat complicated process by which a candidate is allocated delegates.*

While delegates continue to be counted in California and in Washington (state), Biden leads Sanders in delegates 857 to 709. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Kamala Harris, and Andrew Yang have each suspended their campaigns and have endorsed Biden. Senator Elizabeth Warren has also announced she is suspending her campaign, although she has yet to endorse a candidate.

The Magic Number

As of March 11, 1,697 delegates have been declared, pledged to candidates representing 46% of the delegates to be selected. To win the nomination, a candidate must win as many states as possible by the highest percentage possible to accumulate the most “pledged delegates.” Pledged delegates vote for the nominee to whom they are pledged at the Democratic National Convention in July.

The key number of delegates to reach is 1,991: half the total number of delegates (3,979) + 1. The number of delegates a candidate is allocated after each state and territory contest is based on a formula determined in advance by the Democratic National Committee. This formula assigns delegates to states and territories based on population, the relative strength of the Democratic Party in the state or territory, and the timing of the primary. States that hold primaries or caucuses later in the process are awarded bonus delegates as are states that agree to hold their primaries on the same day as other primaries. The delegates assigned to states are not related to the Electoral College.

To be allocated delegates, a candidate must have at least 15% of those votes cast in the state’s primary (or caucus). If candidates do not receive 15% of the votes cast, they receive no (0) delegates. If candidates receive 15% or more of the votes cast, they will receive delegates. Delegates are not allocated based on winning the state or territory. Instead, one-fourth of the delegates are awarded based on the state-wide (or territory) vote. Three-fourths are awarded based on the results in congressional districts within the state.

The Democratic Party’s primary process is not “winner take all.” Only if no candidate achieves 15% of the votes cast does a candidate “win” the state outright. In most contests, the two remaining candidates would receive at least 15% of the votes, resulting in each candidate being allocated delegates based on the population and district formula.

In the upcoming primaries, candidates must be strategic not only about choosing the states where they believe they can win, but also in focusing their efforts in states where they believe their opponent may not be able to reach 15%. For a candidate to maintain a lead — which former Vice President Biden currently has — he not only has to win the majority of votes in a state’s contest, but he also has to win by a “landslide.”. Only then would he be allocated the largest proportion of the state’s delegates. The remaining candidates — Biden and Sanders —will continue to accumulate delegates if they receive 15% of the votes cast. Not having a “winner take all” process makes it difficult in a tight race for either candidate to reach a majority — 1,991 — of delegates.

Remaining Primary Contests

On March 10, former Vice President Biden received the most primary votes cast in Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, and Idaho. Senator Sanders won the caucus in North Dakota. As of March 11, Washington (state) is continuing to count votes and it is too close to declare a winner; with 67% of the votes counted, Sanders leads Biden 32.7% to 32.5%. 

Primaries in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio will be held on March 17. On April 4 primaries will be held in Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Wyoming followed by primaries on April 7 in Wisconsin. On April 28, primaries will be held in delegate-rich New York and Pennsylvania as well as in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and Rhode Island. Contests in Kansas (May 2), Indiana (May 5), Nebraska and West Virginia (May 12), and Kentucky and Oregon (May 19) will follow.

The final primaries will take place on June 2 in New Jersey, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and the District of Columbia. After March 17, 60% of the delegates will have been allocated to candidates. After April 28, 90% of delegates will have been allocated.

Convention to Select Nominee

The 2020 Democratic National Convention will be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin from July 13 – 16. The number of delegates pledged to a candidate will be known before the Convention convenes. The Convention will hold a first ballot allowing delegates to officially vote for the nominee to whom they are pledged. Changes adopted after the 2016 election allow only pledged delegates to vote on the first ballot.

One might ask, what happens to Buttigieg’s, Klobuchar’s, and Bloomberg’s pledged delegates? The answer is complicated.

One-fourth of the delegates awarded are based on the state’s population. These statewide allocations are reapportioned based on the state’s initial allocation. For example, Buttigieg won 14 delegates. One-fourth of his delegates are statewide, and those delegates will be reapportioned between Sanders, who came in 2nd, and Biden, who came in 4th but reached the 15% threshold. Three-fourths of Buttigieg’s delegates in Iowa are district delegates who are released from their pledge. Even though Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg endorsed Biden, their “pledged” district delegates could vote for either Biden or Sanders. The rules regarding reapportioning delegates and once “pledged” but now “released” delegates could become very important if neither candidate receives 1,991 on the first ballot.

If no candidate receives 1,991 delegates, the Convention will go to a second ballot. If a second ballot is held, all formerly pledged delegates are released and can vote for any candidate. On the second ballot, to become a nominee a candidate must receive a majority of those voting or 2,375.5. The number has increased because 771 “superdelegates” are allowed to vote on the second ballot thereby increasing the number of votes casts. “Superdelegates” are delegates not chosen by the primaries but awarded “superdelegate status” because they are leaders in the Democratic Party, Members of Congress, Governors, Mayors, former Presidents, and local party leaders. Throughout the process, candidates for the nomination court the support of superdelegates, who typically publicly announce in advance of the Convention the candidate they are supporting.

What Happens Next?

Currently, the race between former Vice President Biden and Senator Sanders is close — the gap is less than 200 delegates. With less than 50% of the delegates allocated, an upcoming debate on March 15, and primaries to be held in delegate-rich New York and Pennsylvania, anything can happen. Recall pundits weeks ago claimed that Biden was down and out and Senator Sanders was surging! In 72 hours all that changed after Biden’s huge victory in South Carolina. While it will be difficult, Senator Sanders could close the gap. The upcoming primary contests are vitally important to each candidate. Biden must maintain his momentum and have a good debate performance, while Sanders must increase voter turnout and expand his coalition if he is to achieve a greater number of delegates to close the gap in the upcoming primaries. While it looks less likely that 771 superdelegates could determine the outcome of the nomination on a potential second ballot, the prospect of a second ballot remains a reality.

For those who want to know who the nominee is likely to be, the answer is: watch the results of the upcoming races and keep track of the delegates awarded after each contest. Pundits are predicting the outcome will be clear by April, but those very same pundits thought Sanders was the likely nominee. Now they believe it will be Biden.

If it continues to be close and neither candidate reaches 1,991 delegates, the nominee may be determined on a second ballot at the Democratic National Convention in July, something that has not occurred since 1952.

* In American politics, “delegates” — representing the results of U.S. states’ primary election contests — collectively decide which candidate the party will eventually run for the presidency.