Understanding Delegate Allocation

I hope you like numbers, dear readers. Those that don’t — you know who you are — brace yourself.

The 2020 Democratic National Convention is scheduled for July 13 through July 16 in Milwaukee. On those dates, 3,979 pledged delegates will pack the Fiserv Forum. Any Democratic presidential candidate that wins the support of a majority — or 1,990 — of those pledged delegates will become the party’s nominee. These delegates will have been determined by the voters of the 56 states and territories in our country.

Sounds simple, right?

It is not.

Our two major political parties are generally terrified of the leading candidate in any given year falling short of a delegate majority, which would lead to a chaotic (if PPFA-pleasing) contested convention. Therefore, the parties have special allocation rules that help drive a winner forward in delegate count even if their vote count lags under 50% nationally. The Republican Party, you might recall from four years ago, has particularly high-stakes allocation rules; candidates that win 50% of the vote in states and/or Congressional districts frequently get all the state’s and/or district’s delegates, and a leading candidate might also get all the delegates if no other candidate reaches 20%. That allows a frontrunner to quickly rack up delegates. Donald Trump only won 44.9% of the primary vote but nonetheless secured a comfortable majority of delegates.

The Democrats are more proportional, though not totally so. A totally proportional primary would mean that if a candidate earns 5% of the national vote, they’d earn 5% of the delegates — or, at the very least, if they earned 5% of a state and/or district’s vote, they’d earn 5% of that state’s and/or district’s delegates. But that approach would allow a massive field, such as the one Democrats have this year, to divvy up the vote in far too many ways for one candidate to secure a majority of delegates at the convention’s first ballot. The ensuing pandemonium would presumably hurt the party’s chances in a general election.

As a result, Democrats usually work with a 15% threshold at the district and state level, meaning only candidates who reach 15% of the vote earn delegates from the state or district. All candidates who do so divide the delegates proportionally, but they’ll all earn a higher proportion of delegates than they did percentage of the vote, because some candidates won’t reach 15%, allowing the delicious delegate pie to be divided amongst fewer hungry candidates.

To better understand whatever the heck I just said, let’s put it into practice with my home state of Connecticut, slated to hold its primary on April 28. As of now, Connecticut has been awarded 60 pledged delegates, 40 of whom will be determined by its five Congressional districts, and 20 who will be awarded by the statewide vote — or “at large” delegates.[1] The 40 district delegates won’t necessarily be evenly distributed to eight for each of the five districts, but let’s assume that to be the case for simplicity’s sake. Let’s also assume Connecticut’s vote is fairly evenly distributed across those districts. Finally, let’s plug in these hypothetical results in the state’s primary:

  1. Biden 30%
  2. Sanders 25%
  3. Bloomberg 15%
  4. Warren 13%
  5. Buttigieg 10%
  6. Yang 4%
  7. Klobuchar 2%
  8. All others 1%

Now, if it were a fully proportional primary, Biden would get about 30% of the state’s 60 pledged delegates (or 18), Sanders gets 25% (15 delegates), Bloomberg 15% (9), Warren 13% (8), Buttigieg 10% (6), Yang 4% (2), and Klobuchar 2% (1). That totals 59, so perhaps whomever was closest to rounding up to the next whole number would get that rounding error. Again, that’s if it were fully proportional.

However, it could never be that simple — at least not while there are district delegates. Remember, we’re estimating eight delegates per Connecticut district. How does one allocate the eight delegates if there are seven candidates dividing votes? It wouldn’t work. Thresholds therefore solve two problems: the aforementioned chaos of an overly divided convention vote and the district delegate problem.

If we re-apply the same Connecticut numbers but with the Democrats’ allocation rules, only Biden, Sanders, and Bloomberg would get delegates, because only they met the threshold of 15%. They would therefore split the 60 delegates proportionally with each other (again, we’re assuming an even distribution across the districts), while the 30% of voters who voted for someone other than those three would have their votes proportionally distributed to those who met the threshold. By this history’s teacher untrustworthy math, Biden, with just 30% of the vote, would actually come away with 43% of delegates, or 26 of the 60. Sanders would get 21 and Bloomberg the remaining 13. Warren, despite her 13% of the vote, would get nothing.[2]

All 49 primaries work that way. (The seven caucuses have some quirks that make them less straight-forward.) By design, the above process helps get leading candidates to the magic majority number more quickly.[3]

Tomorrow, I hope to apply what we’ve learned to some early state calculations… and beyond. See you then.


[1]That’s not the first time I’ve had to hedge my language in this post. We don’t KNOW the total number of delegates for each state and Congressional district yet, though we have good estimates. A state’s and district’s delegate count is not only determined by A) its population, but also by B) the strength of its Democratic Party, as demonstrated by its election of Democrats, and C) when it decides to hold its primary. For the latter, states can get penalized for moving up their primary too early, rewarded for holding their primaries later, and they can also get rewarded for clustering their primary with surrounding states. These calculations are ongoing, so much of what we have is based on current or assumed math. I highly recommend TheGreenPapers.com if you want to learn more.

[2]Still, remember that district votes don’t necessarily match the state. For example, at 13%, it’s likely Warren earned 15% in at least one Congressional district. She would then be eligible to earn a delegate from that district. Contrarily, Bloomberg likely falls short of 15% in a district or two — or perhaps Sanders would finish higher than Biden in a district — which could mess with their Connecticut delegate hauls. Our estimates were certainly close, but almost surely imprecise.

[3]You might wonder what happens if A) No candidate reaches 15%, or B) If just one candidate does. Good wondering! Your answers:

  • In the A scenario, they take the leading candidate’s number — say, 14% — and award delegates proportionally to anyone who earns at least half that number — in this case, 7% or higher.
  • In the B scenario, that lucky candidates gets all the district delegates or state’s at large delegates, even if that candidate won only 15 or 20 percent of the vote in the district or state.

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