Understanding delegate math

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

This November, it'll be pretty easy to figure out who won. The electoral votes in each state are apportioned by population, and the winner of the popular vote in each state wins all of those votes. (Except in Nebraska and Maine, and with the Bush/Gore 2000 caveat.)

But in the Democratic primary race, the math is much more complex. But as confusing as it might be, it serves to extend the campaign (which is good for our party) and it protects the party by ensuring that the most delegates are assigned where the most Democrats live and vote.

Here's how it works, in most states anyway.

For starters, the total number of pledged delegates in each state is based on two factors - the number of Electoral College votes and the Democratic vote for president in the last three presidential elections (1996, 2000, 2004.)

So, a strong Democratic state like New Jersey will get more pledged delegates - in proportion to population - than a weak Democratic state like Georgia. Those two states each have 15 electoral votes - but New Jersey gets 107 delegates while Georgia only gets 87.

Once the votes are cast today, the "delegate math" kicks in.

In most states, roughly 35% of the delegates will be allocated based on the proportional vote each candidate gets in the statewide balloting. And roughly 65% of the delegates will be awarded based on the proportional vote each candidate gets in each congressional district.

But not all congressional districts get the same number of delegates. They've all got the same number of people - but not the same number of Democrats. So, just like at the state-by-state level, the number of delegates is allocated by the Democratic performance in each district. (Exactly how varies quite bit - based on one of four approved formulas.) Every district gets between three and seven delegates.

And if that's not enough, here's where it gets really interesting.

For starters, you need at least 15% of the vote to get any delegates at all. Once the sub-15% folks are removed from the equation (sorry, Mike Gravel), here's how the math works:

* In a three-delegate district, if you get 50% plus one, you get two delegates. (Yes, that's a huge bonus for winning by a single vote.)

* In a four-delegate district, however, a 51-49% outcome leads to a 2-2 split among delegates. Even a 60-40 split is still 2-2. The winning candidate has to get to 62.5% to earn a 3-1 split.

* In a five-delegate district, unless the winning candidate gets over 70% of vote, it's going to be a 3-2 split.

* In a six-delegate district, it's going to be a 3-3 split, unless the winning candidate gets over 58.4%, then it's a 4-2 split. 75% of the vote earns a 5-1 split.

And so on...

For the campaign managers out there, consider what this means in terms of GOTV strategy. If you're fairly certain you're going to handily win a congressional district, you send your resources somewhere else. That is, unless you think you're in range of one of the supermajority tiers that earns you another delegate.

Even more to the point, given the 50/50 nature of the fight between Clinton and Obama, almost all the congressional districts with an even number of delegates will be split evenly. It'll take a big win of 56% (for 8), 59% (for 6), or 63% (for 4) to earn an advantage.

So, the GOTV campaigns are almost certainly happening entirely in the odd-number delegate districts. That's a weird artifact of the process, to be sure.

But all in all, unlike the Republican Party, with its largely winner-take-all system, the Democrats' process seems more democratic -- by ensuring that the most votes go to where the most Democrats are, it ensures that the overall outcome will largely reflect the will of Democratic voters... Even if it will take longer and involve some wacky math.


I found four sources useful in sorting through all this: The DNC's Delegate Selection Rules are tough sledding, but useful. Beyond that, recent articles by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Associated Press, and Time Magazine were very helpful.

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    I think one of the oddest states is Texas. People always look at me funny when I tell them we vote AND caucus.

    You go to your polling place and vote during the day. You then head back to your polling place at 7 p.m. when the polls close and caucus. Only those who voted during the primary are eligible for the caucus.

    And of course with no party registration (unless they changed it since I moved away), you can literally decide that day which party you're going to vote for and caucus with.

    From Wikipedia:

    Texas holds primary election and begins caucusing at the precinct conventions immediately after primary elections close. Any person casting a vote in the party primary is eligible to caucus at their precinct location at 7:15 pm of election night. Allocation of delegates between primary and caucus varies among political parties. According to Texas Democratic Party rules, District Level delegates are allocated based on primary elections. At-Large delegates are allocated based on state convention delegate sign-ins after caucusing at the precinct and district/county levels.

  • James X. (unverified)

    Would it not make sense to just add up all the votes for each candidate at the party convention, and give the nomination to the person who gets the most votes?

    Not that I don't appreciate the entertainment of watching a Rube Goldberg device unfold.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    Sorry Kari, delegate math gave the dems Kerry on the top of the ticket last election cycle. It defintely did not serve the party or the country for that matter.

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    Kerry got the nomination not because of delegate math but because Iowa & NH made him the front-runner. that's one of the reasons the DNC tried something diffrent this year. long before anybody started counting delegates in 2004, the deal was done. this is the first year since 1968 that we could have an unsettled nomination at the convention, which is a scary thing -- because then we have to worry about super-delegate math.

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    You don't have to wade through the whole plan, unless you're into mind-altering, eye-glazing torture (believe me, I know about this). The DPO website has a summary of the plan, and a "walk through" of how the process works. When you get onto the website, click on the Convention button on the left side, and you'll see them.

    We'll also be giving presentations on the delegate selection process around the state, starting Feb. 14 in Polk County. The schedule will be posted on the website as it's developed.

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    Yeah, James.... that's an interesting idea. But you still need some sort of human vehicle for making the decision.

    Otherwise, if it's just a tabulation of votes, what happens if a candidate dies - or is nailed in a damning scandal?

    In a delegate-driven system, the delegates could/would step up and make a decision on behalf of their states.

    In 1968, for example, RFK took a commanding lead after winning the California primary -- and then he was killed. The delegates had to then decide on the nominee at the convention. (Which is partly what led to that raucus '68 convention.)

    Spreadsheets are nice (I live and die by 'em), but ultimately you need some humans to make the decision. If you didn't have delegates elected roughly in proportion to the electorate, you'd just have a handful of party bosses making the decision.

    And, btw, the reverse is also true. If you didn't have delegates who were passionately committed to their candidate, it'd be much easier for party leadership to trump up a fake or minor scandal to oust a nominee that they didn't like.

  • A. Rab. (unverified)

    Kerry did not win because of the delegate math, he won because delegates were ignored in favor of "momentum." Both Dean and Edwards dropped out before Kerry had enough delegates to get the nomination - and there were enough states left to vote that it was not a done deal in terms of delegates. Tim Noah at Slate has been doing an occasional series of articles on the media coverage of "momentum" vs. "delegate" wins.

    P.S. Maine and Nebraska do not use a winner take all system for the Electoral College.

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    Thanks, Rab. I've added Maine to the list.

    And you're right: Kerry's competitors dropped out because the "momentum" coverage killed their fundraising.

    I've been pleasantly surprised this cycle with the delegate-focused coverage. Gee, it's almost like the media wants the race to keep going. (Gotta get themselves a chunk of all that money they're raising, eh?)

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    I like the proportional winning of delegates. It makes it possible for a real race and for close seconds or thirds to stay alive. It gives time for an underdog like Obama to gain public awareness. I understand the rationale behind the super-delegates to prevent a George Wallace from taking over the party. But they should keep their powder dry until they can see who has the popular support. That is NOT DEMOCRATIC in either sense of the word to annoint someone ahead of real tests of support! A scenario where a "machine" candidate gets the nomination based on super delegates over a suitable candidate who is compatible with party principles who has more pledged delegates from winning primaries or caucuses would destroy the party utterly.

    There are other races though besides short-term delegate count which also determine the ultimate outcome. There is the perceptual contest, who is winning based on the dynamics of popular opinion. There is the funding contest, which Barack Obama is winning at present. ($32 million to $13 million in January with massively more contributors).

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    For what it's worth, my much discredited proportional-predictor chart, along with other assort analysis (how hard it is to catch up once you're in the hole with proportional delegates) is here.

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    Gee, it's almost like the media wants the race to keep going. (Gotta get themselves a chunk of all that money they're raising, eh?)

    Man, there's a writer's strike on--this is free content! They're soaking it up.

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    Addendum: Any of you old-timers out there remember the 1968 Convention?

    That was a total disaster. And the main reason for it was the Democratic party nominated a very able candidate, Hubert Humphrey, but who was nevertheless nominated by the Dem. machine hacks with no elected delegates, at a time when Robert Kennedy and Gene McCarthy had gone out and campaigned and won actual delegates based on real votes. Of course the fact that Humphrey was nominated over the popular choice, and was saddled with the Vietnam War, which he supported, meant a wholesale disaffection by the young especially from politics for two generations. There was a pitched battle in the streets of Chicago, spilling over at times on the convention floor.

    The result of that election, the narrow Nixon victory, and the split in the party between the peace and justice camps and the working class union camps created the opening for the conservative dominance of politics from 1980 on. So the party leaders need to retain their historical memory and welcome the new generation into this party, let real votes and real voters take their course. We have a generational conflict in this primary and the successful resolution of it is important. As an Obama supporter I am hopeful that after our 40 years since the terrible year of 1968, we will in some way find a healing to the party and the nation, and give the mantle of leadership to the newer generation.

    We may complain about this outdated primary system. But it wasn't that long ago that the state party organization officials and insiders chose the nominee. Primary elections were very few then.(Oregon was one of the few.) It is a vast improvement over what was, not that long ago.

  • Miles (unverified)

    But all in all, unlike the Republican Party, with its largely winner-take-all system, the Democrats' process seems more democratic

    Except the Democratic superdelegates undercut that notion. We have almost twice as many as the Republicans. There is a real possibility that Obama and Clinton will enter the convention nearly tied, without a majority of delegates. And the nomination will fall to the superdelegates, which is about as undemocratic as you can get. One of our supers, Gov. K., has already committed to Hillary. What happens if Oregon gives Obama a resounding victory? Should the Governor have the ability to discount the voters of his own state in order to nominate someone we don't want?

    Hopefully the superdelegate system will be reformed before the next election. It's a throwback to the party machine days.

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    There was a pitched battle in the streets of Chicago, spilling over at times on the convention floor.

    "Pitched battle" or, as the commission headed by future Illinois Governor Daniel Walker to investigate the events that took place outside the convention called it, a "police riot".

    It was the clearing of the demonstrators from Lincoln Park that led directly to the violence: symbolically, it expressed the city's opposition to the protesters; literally, it forced the protesters into confrontation with police in Old Town and the adjacent residential neighborhoods. The Old Town area near Lincoln Park was a scene of police ferocity exceeding that shown on television on Wednesday night. From Sunday night through Tuesday night, incidents of intense and indiscriminate violence occurred in the streets after police had swept the park c ear of demonstrators. Demonstrators attacked too. And they posed difficult problems for police as they persisted in marching through the streets, blocking traffic and intersections. But it was the police who forced them out of the park and into the neighborhood. And on the part of the police there was enough wild club swinging, enough cries of hatred, enough gratuitous beating to make the conclusion inescapable that individual policemen, and lots of them, committed violent acts far in excess of the requisite force for crowd dispersal or arrest. To read dispassionately the hundreds of statements describing at firsthand the events of Sunday and Monday nights is to become convinced of the presence of what can only be called a police riot.
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    One of our supers, Gov. K., has already committed to Hillary. What happens if Oregon gives Obama a resounding victory? Should the Governor have the ability to discount the voters of his own state in order to nominate someone we don't want?

    And another of ours, Congressman Blumenauer, has committed to Obama. Of course there's nothing to stop one or more of them from changing their mind between now and then. It happens all the time.

    If we didn't have all these super delegate positions, then that would mean people like Gov K and Blumenauer would run at the CD or state level for a delegate position. And having been there and done that both in Texas and in Oregon, I can tell you that the elected officials win the seats. So you'd end up with fewer "every day" Dem volunteers and activists getting to participate in the system.

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    Thank you darrel. That's closer to accurate IMO.

    What you wound up with was NE machine politicians (although I think that the '68 election was the beginning of the end for them), their hard hat followers, Dixiecrats, and Republicans all on one side of the issues, (not just talking about the convention or Chicago here) and the small and fractured young liberals on the other.


    As for the super delegates, I don't like the concept much, and the fact that they were introduced to keep the rabble from electing another McGovern makes it worse.

    That said, however, I know quite a few of the Oregon superdelegates, and there is zero chance that they are going to fall in line behind the governor or anybody else for that matter.

  • Miles (unverified)

    Fine, but they'd be pledged delegates, which is totally different. Given the choice, I'd prefer to send fewer Dem volunteers and have a democratic system than send more Dem volunteers and have the nomination decided by superdelegates in a back room.

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    When the media post delegate count, sometimes they post pledged elected delegates based on primary elections and caucuses, which is appropriate. But sometimes the count includes the superdelegate counts, which shows a Clinton lead. And the Clintonites like to remind everyone they are really ahead because they have the greater portion superdelegates. Well, I have to say that just comes across as really CS. That kind of talk just undermines Clinton and the Democratic party. Does she really think she can be a legitimate nominee with a majority of superdelegates and not a majority of elected and pledged delegates? If such a thing happened, it would be the end of the Democratic party. What the hell kind of system is that?

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    A little devil's advocate moment: It's worth noting that every single superdelegate was democratically elected by somebody. Whether it's actual elected officials - or party officials elected by Democratic precinct committee people.

    The only exceptions to that are Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and Walter Mondale. They're superdelegates by dint of their former status as elected officials.

  • Miles (unverified)

    Kari, what the hell does it matter that they were elected? When Gov K was running, did he include in his platform who he would support as a superdelegate?

    The point is that it's an undemocratic throwback to an earlier era. The party should be ashamed that is keeps a system that ignores the will of Democratic party members.

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    An excellent point, Miles.

    I guess I wonder about what the alternatives are, in the event that no candidate gets a majority of the delegates.

    Do we just keep going ballot after ballot after ballot? The only way that makes a difference is if the delegates do something other than the will of the voters that sent them there.

    Does Howard Dean decide? After all, he's the chairman of the party. But that doesn't seem very democratic.

    Who decides? What's the escape valve?

  • A. Rab. (unverified)

    Kari, The super delegates were never intended as an "escape valve." The super delegates were a compromise that allowed the local bosses to still have a say at the convention. There has never been an escape clause, and there is no reason to think we need one now. Yes, it may take a few ballots before a compromise is found, but that is not the worst thing in the world. A large number of ballots is rare, with events like the 1924 Democratic Convention being the exception, not the rule.* The only way to avoid a convention fight is to eliminate the entire delegate process, and make it a popular vote, but that of course would bring a whole new host of problems.

    • That convention was the longest nomination process for a major party. Front runner William MacAdoo refused to renounce the support of the Klan or support a plank condemning them. In response, New York Gov. Al Smith denied MacAdoo the nomination. However, Smith, as a "wet" (anti-Prohibition), big city, Irish-Catholic was unacceptable to the south, which could deny the nomination thanks to nominee needing 2/3 of the delegates. The complicated process of picking a nominee that year led Will Rogers (who was one of the party bosses negotiation a compromise) to quip: "I do not belong to an organized party, I'm a Democrat."
  • Annabelle (unverified)

    I am an independant. I had to read your aticle 4 times, taking notes on a napkin, and I'm still scratching my head. You democrats just looooooveee to over complicate things. There is no need for delegates, primaries, or the electoral college. Our representatives should ALWAYS be determined based on popular vote. When someone runs for Alderman or Mayor, there are no delegates, primaries, or electoral college votes to count, only a stack of ballots cast by citizens.

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    sign-ins after caucusing at the precinct and district/county levels.

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