Applying Delegate Allocation

Yesterday, I outlined how a state’s primary determines the distribution of a state’s delegates across candidates, particularly noting the effects of the 15% threshold on this allocation. Today, I thought it might be fun, if decidedly premature, to show how that might play out in the early part of the primary’s voting stage. I’m going to apply candidates’ current Real Clear Politics polling averages in the early states to see how the delegate count would shake out if those numbers held.

(To be clear, this is meant to be an instructive exercise, not a predictive one. After Iowa, the polling numbers will change in New Hampshire and subsequent states. After New Hampshire, polling numbers elsewhere will again change. Still, running this simulation can help us see how delegates accrue in a not totally proportional way, which I think helps us understand the process a bit better.)

We’ll start with Iowa’s February 3 caucuses, now just 24 days away. Like yesterday’s Connecticut example, it’s simplest if we assume even distribution of a state’s votes across its districts. If candidates hit these polling numbers, our delegate estimates won’t be perfect, but they will be close. I’ll also have to round where I think appropriate.

Using current Iowa polling, its 41 delegates would be divided thusly:


Eight days later, we’ll have New Hampshire‘s February 11 primary. If its polling held (it won’t), it would look like this:

Note: Warren’s 14.8%, unless it’s almost perfectly balanced across New Hampshire’s two Congressional districts, would likely earn her a delegate in the district where she cracks the 15% threshold. But today: no dice.

If we dare do primary analysis at this point (we’re already past reasonable estimates without knowing what happens over the next month), we see that Bernie Sanders could easily be leading the race after the first two contests. (In fact, I’d say that’s more likely than not.) However, unless there are major polling shifts heading into the next two states — which is possible, though how probable it is depends on whose supporters you talk to — we’ll see that Biden will quickly make up that gap once the racially diverse states weigh in.

That starts with Nevada‘s February 22 caucuses, which currently has the following polling[1]:


And then the last early state — South Carolina‘s Leap Year Primary:


Note how Biden would get a majority of South Carolina’s delegates despite not winning a majority of its vote. That’s because he wins a large majority of the two-way vote between him and Sanders, the only other candidate to get 15%. (Warren falling just short is relevant. Were she to climb up to 15 herself, then the candidates split the delegates three ways. It’d look something like Biden 28, Sanders 12, Warren 12.)

We’re starting to see, with 155 delegates awarded so far, how the allocation rules affect the race over time. Though we never gave Biden more than 32% of the vote, Biden nonetheless won 71 delegates, or about 46% of them. As the field quickly winnows in February, it’ll be easier for a leading candidate to get to 40% or so of the vote, which likely means over 50% of the delegates.

And that’s before the major delegations weigh in. Just for fun, and because I’m at only 400 words, let’s keep our Trust the Polls primary going. Doing so can actually be instructive in another way. Specifically, the February states, as much importance as we give them due to their initiation of the process impacting later races, are dwarfed by others in terms of delegation size. Here are the contests and estimated delegation size of the March 3 “Super Tuesday” states, the first contests after the four February showdowns:

Alabama 52
American Samoa 6
Arkansas 31
California 415
Colorado 67
Democrats Abroad 13
Maine 24
Massachusetts 91
Minnesota 75
North Carolina 110
Oklahoma 37
Tennessee 64
Texas 228
Utah 29
Vermont 16
Virginia 99
TOTAL: 1357

With numbers like that, it kind of makes our obsession with the February states look kinda silly. Take the New Hampshire Primary, which gets breathless coverage in the months leading up to it. Were it held on Super Tuesday, its size would rank only ahead of Vermont, Democrats Abroad, and the American freakin’ Samoa. As the kids might say, New Hampshire’s 24 delegates are, like, literally nothing. Because of when it’s held, however, it’s treated as if it were everything.

Super Tuesday, since it became a thing, has all but determined each party’s nominee since 1988. Considering that this year it will award 1,357 of the 3,979 pledged delegates — nearly 35% of the total — that makes sense. At that point, the leading candidate’s lead should be sizable enough that most undecided voters break in his or her direction the rest of the way, and anyone in pursuit would have an impossible time catching them. We saw that with Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016, supporters of whom held out hope for a comeback far beyond reason.

But how will Super Tuesday break? Sorry, but I think I’ve leaned too far in front of my skis already; if we tried to project to Super Tuesday, we’d tumble. Polling beyond the February states is scant, and any polling we do have can be totally scrambled by the results of those February states. Just keep this big day in the back of your mind. There’s a reason I’ve had a Super Tuesday Countdown on the PPFA sidebar. I’d say it’s more likely than not that, on the morning of March 4, we will know with over 90% certainty who the nominee will be.


[1]The Nevada and South Carolina polling averages reflect Fox News polls out of each state, released last night. They reveal a big Tom Steyer surge into third place in Nevada, with 12 points, and second(!) place in South Carolina, with 15. As a result, he became the sixth candidate to qualify for this Tuesday’s big Des Moines debate:


Today is the last day to qualify for the debate, so there’s a good chance it’s just the six.

I must admit, Steyer getting into the debate ahead of Yang irks me. The latter has worked for over a year rising from near anonymity to become a likable, incredible fundraiser with a loyal following. The former, however, joined late and merely spends millions of dollars in the early states, more than all other candidates combined. So while everyone else focuses on Iowa and New Hampshire as we near those contests, he vastly outspends them in Nevada and South Carolina and jumps up the polls there and into another debate. He feels like such an interloper. I would have preferred a five-person debate on Tuesday, or at least a six-person debate with either Yang or Booker.

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