How to go from “Candidate” to “Nominee”–The Delegate System Explained

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Few Americans fully comprehend the American “electoral system,” especially the process in which an individual moves from candidate to nominee.

Currently, the populace is fully immersed in the 2016 presidential election campaign. Donald Trump has upset the political pundits and Republican party leaders, and Bernie Sanders has Hillary Clinton supporters “feeling the Bern.” Ex-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is contemplating a run as an independent. Even after the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, the final outcome of the election remains far from certain.

Bernie Sanders at a rally in Phoenix. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Bernie Sanders at a rally in Phoenix. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Given this uncertainty it is essential that everyone consider and decode the complex American electoral “system,” and define the path of the remaining candidates between now and this summer, when both parties put forward their nominee.

The process begins with candidates declaring their interest in running for President. For some candidates, this announcement comes after months of research and planning, the hiring of a campaign staff, and fundraising. Other candidates send out an email to family and friends. It only costs $1000 to get on this year’s primary ballot in New Hampshire. For this reason, democratic voters had 28 candidates to choose from in the “Granite State,” a number far greater than the two (Sanders and Clinton) focused on by the mainstream media. Once the candidates announce, they begin campaigning.

The goal of every candidate seeking to be the Republican, Democratic, or other party nominee is to accumulate delegates for their respective conventions. The convention is where the standard-bearer for each party is chosen. The Republican convention will be held in Cleveland, Ohio from July 18-21. The Democratic convention will be held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from July 25-28.

Delegates are earned in three ways: First, from state primaries, where voters go into a polling booth and vote for the candidate of their choice. Second, from state caucuses, where voters gather at hundreds of local meetings, discuss their preferences in candidates, and indicate their support for specific candidates. And third, from “superdelegates” or “unpledged” delegates, party officials who can support whichever candidate they want at the convention, meaning they are in no way bound by primary and caucus results. For both parties, in order to become the nominee, you must receive the support of a majority of delegates in attendance at the convention.

The most common method for choosing delegates is the primary, although the primaries differ from state to state and party to party. The majority of primaries are proportional “closed primaries,” which only allow voters who are registered with a party to vote for a party’s candidates, and then award the delegates to the candidates based on the proportion of votes they each receive. There are, however, many permutations of the primary form.

Graphic: Sydney Palmer '17
Graphic: Sydney Palmer ’17

For example, there are primary states, like New Hampshire, that have “open primaries,” which means they allow registered voters to vote in whichever party’s primary election they prefer. In New Hampshire, this meant that some Republicans voted for Bernie Sanders, and some Democrats voted for Donald Trump.

For numerous state primaries, especially those run by the Republican party, there is a “winner-take-all” system, meaning that the candidate who gets the most votes gets all the delegates from the state. There are also “semi-open” and “semi-closed” primaries and primary states that award delegates in a combination of proportionality and “winner-take-all,” the latter approach kicking in if a candidate gets above a certain threshold of voters, usually 50 percent.

The caucus system for choosing delegates is more obscure and complicated than the primary system. Instead of awarding the delegates based on voters going to traditional polling places and casting ballots, individual voters go to hundreds of locations around the state and participate in a  live event, run by either the Republican or Democratic party (smaller parties also hold caucuses for their candidates if needed). In in most states, once the voters get to the school gym, church, community center, or other locations, they gather into groups favoring one candidate or another.

Representatives of the candidates speak out, trying in an attempt to sway undecided and hesitant voters. Mini-debates take place until the time that those in attendance are required to either cast a secret ballot (if it is a Republican caucus) or stand in a location with others who support their candidate (if it is a Democratic caucus). If it is democratic caucus, heads are counted or those in attendance write their names on pieces of paper. In Iowa, these paper ballots were collected in everything from bowls to popcorn buckets.

Like the primaries, the caucuses can be open, closed, semi-open, and semi-closed which throws an extra element of unpredictability into the mix, making it difficult for pollsters and pundits to predict who will win.

In the Democratic caucuses, once the groups supporting different candidates coalesce, things get interesting. At the Iowa Democratic caucuses, a candidate’s supporters are only counted if the amount to 15 percent or more of the voters in attendance. Former Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley reached that threshold in only a handful of precincts and barely registered in the final results — he dropped out of the race.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders split the Iowa votes and the delegates. These delegates are not the delegates to the national convention but to a state convention at which the delegates to the national convention will be chosen. This is all so mind-numbingly confusing that CNN and other networks didn’t even try to explain it on the night of the Iowa caucuses.

The category of delegates, known as “undeclared” or “superdelegates,” are rarely discussed but could be a huge factor at the 2016 nominating conventions. The Republicans have a relatively small number of “undeclared” delegates, 210 drawn from the ranks of state and national party officials.

Though small in number, they play an influential if no Republican candidate arrives at the Cleveland convention without a majority of delegates already committed, as they are free to support whomever they want. Pundits such as the Washington Examiner are saying that Republican superdelegates will steer their votes toward the candidate most likely to maintain the status quo within the party, meaning they are less likely to support business tycoon Donald Trump or Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

In contrast, the Democratic party allocates 712 superdelegates. Among the superdelegates are former presidents and vice-presidents, the 20 sitting Democratic governors, 47 Democratic senators, and 193 members of Congress, and 432 other party officials from the state and national level. With 394 of these superdelegates already declaring their support for Hillary Clinton due to her more moderate view points, Bernie Sanders is at a significant disadvantage. Looking at New Hampshire, if you count the New Hampshire superdelegates who have already declared for Clinton, she will yield more delegates from the state than will Sanders, in spite of the fact that he resoundingly beat her in the primary.

While the early primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina set the tone for the campaign and often make or break candidates, the bulk of the delegates are won on several days in March, during the so-called “Super Tuesdays.” For example, on March 1, thirteen primaries and caucuses will be held. On March 15, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio will vote. If the Democratic race is still open in June, the June 7 primaries in such states as New Jersey, California, New Mexico, and North Dakota will be determinative.

Outcome aside, the nominating conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia will likely be highly entertaining. In all recent presidential election cycles, candidates from both parties have achieved a majority of delegates before the conventions. This has allowed the chosen candidate to begin fundraising, begin to plan the post-convention campaign, and plan a convention that can energize their political party. This year, there are signs that both parties could arrive at their conventions without having chosen a candidate. This could lead to substantial drama.

At the convention delegates representing each candidate cast their votes in various rounds of voting. Traditionally, one candidate has a clear majority of delegates and after all the delegates have cast their votes, that candidate is declared the winner. If there is not clear winner after the first round of voting, delegates are able to vote again, but this time they are not required to support the candidate the were compelled to support (based on popular vote) in the first round.

Imagine a scenario, for example, in which Donald Trump and John Kasich took the lead, but no Republican candidate secured a majority of delegates in the first round. This would result in the candidates, their advisors, and party leaders would begin negotiating behind closed doors (the proverbial “smoke-filled rooms”) to choose the nominee.

No description fully encapsulates the complexities of the American presidential election system. It varies by state and by party. It invites public participation yet is frustratingly difficult to figure out at the same time. Although truly democratic it boasts a delegate system that often favors establishment figures. Still, this year candidates such as Trump and Sanders have uncovered and exploited a vein of alienation and disgruntlement among the voting public that may turn the system upside down.