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The Long and Winding Road of the Presidential Primaries

By Tim Harper, Michael Thorning

Friday, February 19, 2016

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As the 2016 presidential nomination process begins to unfold, many Americans find themselves perplexed by the different types of contests in each state and the different ways the results translate into “victory.” Like the Electoral College, the primary campaign is not just about who wins the most votes. Margins of victory, order of finish, and vote percentages matter a great deal. At the most basic level, the nomination process is a series of contests in each state to determine how the states’ delegates will be allocated at the national conventions to select a presidential nominee for each party.

But the contests are complex. They are a web of scheduling, rules, and maneuvering that can be difficult to untangle. To begin with, each party has its own rules for how many delegates each state is allocated and how those delegates may be awarded based on primary results. Further complicating things, the state parties have some flexibility in how their contests are conducted and how the results translate into allocation of delegates.

The interplay of all of these factors can make it difficult for even the savviest political observers to predict an outcome in the most competitive election years. On February 22, we’ll give two such individuals—Ben Ginsberg and Joe Sandler—the chance to do so. For now, we’ll break down the basics. 

How many delegates does a candidate need to secure the nomination? 

Democrats: 2,382 of the 4,763 total delegates. 712 of these are “superdelegates” (more on this below).

Republicans: 1,237 of the 2,472 total delegates. 

What are the different types of delegates? 

Democrats: The Democratic Party has two types of delegates: pledged and unpledged. Pledged delegates are those selected to support a candidate at the party’s national convention based on the outcome of the state primaries and caucuses. Unpledged delegates, also known as superdelegates, are certain current or former elected officeholders or party officials who may support any candidate of their choosing. They make up about 15 percent of all delegates.

Republicans: There are two types of delegates: pledged and bound. Bound delegates make up the vast majority of delegates at the convention—only three states send pledged delegates. By party rules, bound delegates are obligated to vote for the candidate they are selected to support at the convention based on the state primaries and caucuses for at least the first ballot. This rule is strict compared with pledged delegates, who can change their vote, but usually do not unless their candidate drops out or releases them to vote for another candidate—most likely the presumptive nominee. Unlike the Democrats, Republicans have no unpledged delegates at their convention. 

How many delegates does each state get? 

Democrats: The number of pledged delegates is determined by a formula giving equal weight to the state’s support for the Democratic candidates in the three most recent presidential elections and to population as determined by Electoral College votes. The higher a state’s population and recent support for Democratic candidates, the more delegates it receives.

For instance, Florida and New York are about equal in population and Electoral College votes, but over the last three election cycles, New York has been a more reliably Democratic voting state. As a result, New York has 247 pledged delegates and Florida has 214. Or in the case of Nebraska and New Mexico, which both have five electoral votes, New Mexico has been more reliably Democratic in recent years. Therefore, New Mexico has about 50 percent more delegates. 

Republicans: The Republican National Committee allocates delegates to states using a formula with four categories: base delegates, district delegates, automatic party delegates, and bonus delegates. Base and district delegates are determined by a state’s congressional representation. Each state receives five base delegates for each senator and three delegates for each congressional district. All states also receive three automatic party delegates. Finally, bonus delegates are awarded to states that voted for the Republican nominee in a previous presidential election, or has a Republican governor, Republican senators, or Republican-controlled state legislative chambers.

For example, Georgia and Michigan both have 42 district delegates for their 14 congressional districts, ten base delegates for their two senators, and three automatic party delegates.  Bonus delegates is where they diverge, though. Georgia has a Republican governor, two Republican senators, and voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Michigan has a Republican governor, two Democratic senators, and voted for Barack Obama in 2012. As a result, Georgia has 21 bonus delegates and Michigan has only four. In all, Georgia has 76 delegates and Michigan has 59. 

How do candidates win those delegates?

Democrats: Pledged delegates are awarded to candidates based on the proportion of support they receive in a state’s primary or caucus. 60 percent of the primary votes translates into 60 percent of the delegates. Only candidates that meet a 15 percent threshold of support in a state’s primary or caucus receive a share of the delegates. Unpledged delegates, also called superdelegates, each make their own decision at the national convention as to which candidate to support, though many will publicly announce their decisions well before the event.

Republicans: The RNC allows states some flexibility to award delegates based on results at the statewide or congressional district level. Each state’s ten base delegates and any bonus delegates are allocated as “at-large” delegates. At-large delegates are awarded based on the primary or caucus results statewide. States can also choose to award congressional district delegates based on statewide results, thereby pooling all delegates together, or award them based on the results in each district.

At-large and congressional district delegates can be awarded proportionally (just like the Democratic Party), through a winner-take-all method, or some combination of the two. In winner-take-all systems, states award all delegates to the candidate that wins the most votes. In mixed systems, states may award delegates proportionally, but include a winner-take-all threshold or “trigger”, in which a candidate can win all delegates, but only if they win more than a certain percent of the vote. Alternatively, states may award at-large delegates and congressional district delegates separately using either proportional or winner-take-all systems. This may result in a system that is closer to “winner-take-most”, as candidates that do not win the election statewide could still win congressional district delegates.

Complicating the process further, the Republicans use thresholds for receiving delegates. In other words, candidates must receive a pre-determined percentage of the vote at the state or congressional district level to receive any votes from that jurisdiction. The Republican National Committee does not require a threshold, but it allows states to set a threshold as high as 20 percent of the vote. Most have a threshold between 10 percent and 15 percent. 

What is Super Tuesday? Why does it matter?

This year, Super Tuesday falls on March 1. More delegates will be allocated on this day than any other single day during the nomination process.

Democrats: On March 1, Democratic primaries or caucuses will take place in 11 states plus American Samoa. In total, 865 pledged delegates will be up for grabs, which is 21 percent of all delegates and 26 percent of pledged delegates. By March 15, just two weeks later, half of all pledged delegates will have been allocated to candidates. By then, 12 additional contests will have taken place for 1,010 delegates. These account for an additional 25 percent of all delegates and 30 percent of pledged delegates. 

Republicans: Fourteen states will hold caucuses and/or primaries totaling 689 delegates, or 28 percent of all delegates, on Super Tuesday. Many of these contests are concentrated in the south, which has led many to call this the “SEC Primary.” By clustering their primaries together and pushing toward the front of the race, these Southern states may have outsized impact on the issues on which candidates will focus and the tone of the campaigns heading into the biggest delegate jackpot of the cycle.  

What factors of the delegate rules might impact the race most in 2016? 


  • Proportional Allocation. The Democratic Party’s system of proportional allocation of delegates can lead to a longer process for a candidate to secure the nomination. With no winner-take-all states, a candidate must win very high percentages of support in the primaries or caucuses to get to 2,382 quickly. A quick sprint to the nomination can be stymied when there is a crowded field or in years when the race is very competitive. For instance, even though more than half of the delegates will be allocated to candidates by March 15, the nomination will likely not be secured by that point.
  • Superdelegates. Democratic Party rules giving a delegate vote to certain current and former elected officeholders (members of Congress, the vice president or president) and party officials account for 15 percent of all delegates. In this and previous election years, concerns have been raised that this might unfairly sway the nomination toward a candidate favored by party elites over one selected by the voters. Since these rules were put in place, however, superdelegates have never swayed the party’s nomination away from the candidate who won the most pledged delegates. 


  • The calendar. It gets harder for a candidate to take the lead away from the early frontrunner the later the process goes on due to new rules put in place to prevent the drawn-out battle the party endured in 2012. As a result, candidates with an early lead have a huge advantage—and it’s not just inertia. The primaries and caucuses in the next month will allocate 63 percent of the delegates awarded overall. On just two days—March 1 and March 15—43 percent of the race will be decided. Without time to reboot or consolidate support after other candidates drop out, candidates looking for a comeback will be hard pressed for time. Historically, this month will determine the nominee: In both 2008 and 2012, the candidate with the most delegates at the point when 50 percent of all delegates had been allocated (which will occur on March 15 this year) went on to win the nomination. Both times, the frontrunner reached an overall majority of delegates, thereby clinching the nomination and preventing a contested convention, by the time 75 percent of all delegates were awarded.
  • Thresholds. Almost all states in the Republican field use a threshold for allocating any delegates to a candidate. In some states such as South Carolina, the threshold is 20 percent, meaning only four candidates at the most are likely to win any delegates. Thresholds will serve to winnow the field by depriving candidates of delegates they may otherwise win. In some states, such as Idaho, if only one candidate surpasses the threshold, they win all the delegates. This can be seen as a sort of backdoor winner-take-all threshold. In a crowded field where few candidates can get to 20 percent of the statewide vote, backdoor winner-take-all thresholds could play a key role in determining the nominee.
  • Winner-take-all systems. While only nine states employ a winner-take-all system, they tend to be in large states such as Florida and Ohio which have big delegate totals. Moreover, because the RNC rules prevent states from using winner-take-all systems before March 14, many of these fall on or after March 15, giving candidates that may be behind in the race a chance to pick up a large cache of late season delegates. Look for native son candidates from these states to bank on a home state win to power them into April.

Working these rules to one’s advantage is a difficult task for any candidate, but each cycle the campaigns devise plans to work within them to secure the nomination. In any given election year, the rules play out differently depending on the dynamics of the races. Come the national conventions, the parties hope the processes they set forth will produce both the candidate their party members want and the candidate that can win in November.