Huffpost Politics
Max Follmer Headshot

Everything You've Ever Wanted To Know About Delegates And Superdelegates

Posted: Updated:
Print

Here's everything you always wanted to ask but never dared to about the Democratic delegates and superdelegates.

Who are the Democratic delegates and are they the same as superdelegates?

Yes and no to that last question. All superdelegates are delegates but not vice versa. Among the regular delegates, there are two sub-categories: pledged and non-pledged. All three types of delegates will attend the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer. A majority of their votes will be required to name the Democratic nominee for President.

How many delegates are there in total?

The convention will host delegations from each of the 50 states, several US territories, and a contingent of "Democrats Abroad." Because some delegates, those from American Samoa, Democrats Abroad, Guam, and the Virgin Islands cast only fractional votes, there will be 4,070 delegates casting a total of 4,047 vote.

How does a candidate win these delegates?

The short answer is by winning primaries and caucuses as each state has a certain amount of delegates apportioned to it.

The longer answer is more complex and often confusing. Not all states apportion the delegates in exactly the same way. And, sorry, but there are different sub-categories among these delegates: pledged and unpledged.

OK, we'll bite. What's the difference?

Pledged delegates are awarded proportionally to candidates based on the results of the primary or caucus results in each state and primary and will support a particular candidate at the national convention.

Pledged delegates are selected both at the Congressional District, and statewide levels.

So even though Candidate X might win a particular state, Candidate Y can still pick up a number of delegates based on their performance in individual congressional districts. Because different districts are weighted differently than others, a candidate can even lose a state by popular vote but still win a majority of delegates. This is the case in Nevada, for example, where Hillary Clinton won by a 10 point margin, but where Barack Obama picked up 13 over her 12 delegates.

We're afraid to ask, but are there different types of pledged delegates?

Yes. There are three types of pledged delegates:

Congressional District Level delegates are chosen at the local level, based on the voting results in that particular district.

At-large delegates are elected at the state level to reflect the proportion of the statewide vote a presidential candidate received.

There are also a number of statewide spots reserved for state elected officials (such as mayors and state legislators) who pledge their support to an individual candidate. They are also elected in proportion to the statewide vote.

Do pledged delegates have to vote a certain way? Can they change their minds?

According to the DNC, "this is one of the biggest myths of the delegate selection process. Delegates are NOT bound to vote for the candidate they are pledged to at the Convention or on the first ballot." Delegates sign a pledge of support, but there is no rule requiring them to honor that pledge.

OK, Ok, however arcane the system might be, in the end, whichever Democratic candidate wins the most of these delegates from the primary and caucus process will win the nomination, right?

Not necessarily. The magic number to clinch the nomination at the convention will be 2,025. But most mathematical projections now agree that it is virtually impossible for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to finish with this many delegates. One or the other candidate might, indeed, finish with a plurality but not an outright majority.

How is that possible? If there's only two candidates how can one of them not have a majority when it's all over?

Thanks for asking about the superdelegates! About one out five of the Democratic delegates - 794 to be exact--are these so-called superdelegates and their votes will make the difference in reaching a majority. They vote at the convention at the same time the other delegates do, but they got there a different way. The superdelegates are seated automatically, based solely on their status as current or former elected officeholders and party officials

The 794 superdelegates consist of :

• All members of the Democratic National Committee (elections to the
DNC are held in each state and territory).
• All Democratic members of the House of Representatives
• All Democratic members of the United States Senate
• All Democratic governors
• All former Democratic presidents
• All former Democratic leaders of the United States Senate
• All former Democratic Speakers of the House
• All former Democratic House Minority Leaders
• All former Chairs of the Democratic National Committee

Do superdelegates have to vote a certain way? Can they change their minds?

Superdelegates do not have to pledge to vote a particular way at the convention (although many announce their support for a candidate in advance). Regardless of any stated endorsement, superdelegates can vote however they choose and are free to change their minds.

Who created these superdelegates, anyway? Isn't the whole thing undemocratic?

After the disastrous, 1968 Democratic convention, the so-called McGovern-Fraser Commission instituted a series of reforms to make the nomination process more transparent and democrats, less beholden to party leaders. But the Democratic establishment thought things went too far and in 1980 created the superdelegates system precisely to give the party machine a way to put the brakes on too much bottom-up initiative if necessary. The whole idea was to return a portion of power to the unelected party managers and incumbent office holders.

Have superdelegates ever decided a Democratic nomination?

Yes, in 1984. Walter Mondale was slightly ahead of Gary Hart at the time of the Democratic convention and superdelegate support put Mondale over the finish line. The Democrats lost that election. In 2004, the opposite occurred. Howard Dean won the most number of superdelegate pledges but John Kerry won an outright majority of delegates through the primary and caucus elections. Kerry also lost the general election.

Hey, what about those delegates from Michigan and Florida? We've heard their votes aren't going to count. Why not?

Both states were punished by the DNC when they advanced their primary calendars too far ahead of the schedule decided on by the national party and were told that their candidates would not be seated at the convention.

Now the DNC says the state parties in Florida and Michigan have two options if they want their delegates to be seated:

1) Appeal to the Convention Credentials Committee. The Convention Credentials Committee determines and resolves any outstanding questions concerning the seating of delegates and alternates to the Convention. The Credentials Committee is expected to meet sometime in July or August prior to the Convention, when it could take up the matters of Florida and/or Michigan.

Members of the credentials committee are selected by the delegates from each state.

2) Michigan and Florida could still choose to run a new party process (some sort of election or caucus), as Delaware did in 1996, to select delegates to the convention. This process must be held between now and the second Tuesday in June, in accordance with DNC rules.