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Eye On Candidates
February 17, 2016

How Does Delegate Allocation Work?

While most of the public and media focus on who wins each caucus and primary, and who meets, beats, or falls short of expectations, the real goal of each candidate is to win a majority of the delegates attending their party’s convention. And how each state awards delegates is a bit of a mystery to many.

The Washington Post helpfully explains the process for both parties. Some excerpts:

Everything you need to know about delegate math in the presidential primary

For Republicans, each state receives three delegates for each congressional district — a population component — and five delegates for each senator. There also are three automatic party delegates and bonuses based on whether the state voted for the Republican nominee in a previous presidential election, or has a Republican governor, Republican senators, or Republican-controlled state legislative chambers. That is the partisan loyalty component.

The 10 base delegates and any bonus delegates are considered at-large delegates. These delegates are allocated based on the statewide results in the primary or caucus. The congressional district delegates can be allocated based on the statewide vote or on the results in each congressional district. But each district gets just three delegates, regardless of whether they are generally Republican districts. Although this helps less Republican districts relative to districts packed with Republican voters, a great many of those districts are later on the calendar.

For Democrats, it works similarly except that congressional districts with more Democrats actually do get more delegates.

Among several other topics, the article also describes how delegates are then allocated based on the outcome of a state’s caucus or primary:

The Democrats have a proportional system: Candidates get delegates in proportion to their vote share in a state’s primary or caucus.

On the Republican side, things are different. Traditionally, the Republican National Committee let states decide how to allocate delegates, and that meant states adopted different rules. Some states use a more proportional rule, some use a winner-take-all rule, and some use a combination.

[But]…[t]he first key detail is nobody is using a strict proportional rule. The Democrats require that candidates get at least 15 percent of the vote to win any delegates.

The Republican National Committee does not require that states use a threshold, but it does allow them to set a threshold as high as 20 percent. Most states have done so. Georgia and a number of states holding primaries on March 1 have the maximum 20 percent threshold.

But Iowa has no threshold, which is why so many candidates won delegates coming out of Iowa. Other states like Kentucky (5 percent), Minnesota (10 percent), or Arkansas (15 percent) have qualifying thresholds somewhere in between.

The article is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand how the candidates are actually nominated, or anyone wondering how someone who comes in well behind the winner in some states can still walk away with a decent delegate haul.

In New York state, for example, which has 95 delegates, a third-place Republican candidate in the April 19 primary getting only 10 percent could still receive a dozen or more delegates simply by winning a few congressional districts (two delegates for each district won) and finishing in second place in several more (one delegate for finishing second in a district). Winning just five of New York’s 27 congressional districts and finishing second in five more, for example, will net a candidate 15 delegates, well out of proportion to their statewide finish.

Over the long haul, a candidate frequently picking up delegates out of proportion to his or her statewide total (losing the state but doing well in individual congressional districts) is probably not going to win the nomination. However, at least on the Republican side where a multi-candidate close race is a strong possibility, it’s possible that adding several dozen delegates awarded in this manner to a large number earned by winning other states’ caucuses and primaries could make the difference between getting the nomination or not.