Before they gave up running for president, Democrats Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren had racked up a total of 157 delegates. That comes to nearly 8 percent of what’s needed to clinch the party nomination.
Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Klobuchar have thrown their support to the current delegate leader, former Vice President Joe Biden. Warren didn’t say Thursday who she’d endorse, if anyone.
So for the three former rivals who have endorsed, does that mean their delegates now all go to Biden? Of course it’s not that simple. Nothing with political party machinations — and with the leader of the free world potentially at stake, no less — ever is.
The best way to answer the question — what happens to those delegates? — is to look at the rest of the campaign in two parts: before and during the Democratic national convention this July in Milwaukee.
First, it’s worth quickly reviewing how delegates are allocated.
Most states hold primaries in which several different pools of delegates are awarded as follows: (The process for caucuses ends up the same place but with cumbersome math.)
There are statewide delegates awarded to any candidate who finishes with more than 15 percent of the vote. Those delegates are distributed proportionally to the percent of the vote earned by each candidate crossing that threshold. These are pledged delegates, meaning they are expected to vote for the candidate who won them.
There also are congressional district delegates awarded using the same math, but within congressional districts.
Even if you end up with only 14 percent of the vote statewide, passing 15 percent in a congressional district earns some pledged delegates.
Here’s the rub: None of this matters at all unless there is a contested convention — that is, no candidate earns the 1,991 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Then it could matter.
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The upshot for our discussion is those candidates pledged to the four former rivals: Are they still pledged to them?
Josh Putnam is a political scientist who focuses on delegate rules. He considered the question on his website, Frontloading HQ, and spoke with a reporter.
One distinction Putnam draws is that while we generally talk about who won how many delegates, for the most part no one actually has any delegates at this point.
The delegates will be assigned at party conventions later in the year. Instead, candidates have mostly won “delegate slots” — placeholders.
This is important because, in some cases, those slots will be filled with delegates for only those candidates who are still in the race.
In New Hampshire, for example, if Buttigieg is no longer a candidate by the time of the state convention, the three delegates he won by virtue of his statewide vote total would be redistributed among the other candidates still in the race who’d crossed the 15 percent threshold.
Since the other two candidates earning statewide delegates in New Hampshire were Klobuchar and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the effect would be that Sanders gets all those delegates.
Except that Buttigieg hasn’t dropped out. He just “suspended” his campaign. If you’re curious why candidates suspend instead of drop out, this is one reason.
“As long as they are still in campaign mode — and they technically and barely still are,” Putnam said, “they protect those delegates from being reallocated.”
So in our example, Buttigieg’s zombie campaign still is allocated his three delegates in New Hampshire.
When we get to the convention, though, those delegates get to play by different rules.
Once the convention rolls around, the party will hold a vote among the delegates in attendance to determine the party’s nominee.
On the first ballot, pledged delegates are expected to vote for the delegates they are there to represent.
If there’s no majority on the first ballot, another round of voting is held in which unpledged superdelegates (mostly party leaders and elected officials) have a vote and in which delegate pledges are set aside.
That “expected to vote for” is important.
Pledged delegates are pledged in the same way that teenagers pledge not to smoke: The success of the pledge largely comes down to their willingness to abide by it.
Campaigns do their best to make sure that their pledged delegates uphold those pledges.
“So typically, these are pretty loyal people — if you’re talking about a well-organized campaign, anyway,” Putnam said.
In other words, Biden’s campaign will work to ensure its pledged delegates are fervent Biden supporters and not people who might get to the convention and suddenly decide Sanders is worth a vote.
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That’s useful, too, for any second (or third) round of voting: a die-hard loyalist will probably keep voting for that candidate as long as that candidate wants.
You’ll notice we haven’t yet talked about the congressional district delegates representing candidates who’ve suspended their campaigns.
Those delegates and the statewide delegates the candidates protected by suspending their campaigns would go to the convention unpledged — meaning that they can vote for anyone they want on the first ballot.
The delegates who are going to the convention on Buttigieg’s behalf, for instance, probably aren’t going to be the sorts of loyalists that Biden or Sanders would send, making it somewhat less likely that Buttigieg can effectively wield those delegates in negotiations.
One of the biggest effects the three former rivals now supporting Biden have over delegates, Putnam argues, is that, by technically staying in the race, they deny the reallocation of their delegates to Sanders.
If the convention moves through multiple rounds of voting without a candidate earning a majority of delegates, the suspended candidates can encourage their delegates to vote for a particular candidate.
But that request is less like a parent insisting a kid stop smoking than it is like a random adult passing by and yelling at teenagers smoking cigarettes in a park.
The Washington Post and the Associated Press contributed.
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