You probably never heard of this Democratic delegate selection rule but it matters

voteIf you’re following the presidential nomination contests, you very well might know these things about the delegate selection process:

  1. Only Democrats have superdelegates. Republicans do not.
  2. Democrats’ superdelegates have never decided who is the nominee. Since their creation, the nominee has been the person who won the most pledged delegates (i.e., those awarded via primaries and caucuses).
  3. Democratic primaries and caucuses allocate delegates proportionately, that is in proportion to the choices of primary voters and caucus goers.
  4. Only Republicans have contests that are winner-take-all, so that the person with the most votes wins all the states’ delegates, but some states allocate proportionately and some via winner-take-all.

If that’s what you know, good! A lot of folks don’t know that much.

However, there’s a rule in most Democratic contests that you probably don’t know about, and it matters.

If you don’t want to wade through the details, here’s the upshot: Someone can win the statewide vote and walk away with fewer delegates, without taking superdelegates into account at all.

Here’s why:

Awarding delegates proportionately isn’t something that just happens with the state-wide vote, at least not in most states.

Before explaining what does happen, here’s an example of what would happen in there was statewide proportionality:

There are 100 pledged delegates for State A. Candidate A wins 55% of the vote statewide. Candidate B wins 45% of the statewide vote. The result: 55 delegates for candidate A and 45 for candidate B.

Simple, eh? The thing is, the system is actually a lot more complicated than that.

One key to the complexity is that there are typically different pots of delegates statewide and for particular subregions of the state. The different regions get different numbers of delegates.

As political scientist Josh Putnam explains:

On the Democratic side, the national party mandates a proportional allocation of the delegates apportioned to each state. The majority of states, in turn, utilize the results of their primaries or caucuses at both the statewide and congressional district level to allocate and bind those delegates to the candidates who clear a threshold of the vote — which can be set no higher than 15 percent — in those political units.

If Hillary Clinton wins 60 percent of the vote statewide in the South Carolina primary, she would receive around 60 percent of the at-large and pledged party leader delegates. If she wins 60 percent of the vote in one of South Carolina’s congressional districts, she would receive around 60 percent of the delegates apportioned to that district. [source, bolding added]*

This itself is a bit of an oversimplification since the subregions can be smaller than congressional districts. But, in any case, there often are delegates awarded statewide proportionately and proportionately within subunits.

So what? Does this really matter?

It can matter.

In Ohio, pledged delegates awarded proportionately at the congressional district level are a significant portion of pledged delegates.  (These Ohio pledged delegates include those awarded based on voters’ choices, which are awarded proportionately based on the state vote and proportionately based on the congressional district vote, as well as the “pledged party leader” delegates which are described at the asterisk at the bottom of this post.)

Ohio has 31 delegates awarded proportionately statewide and 93 awarded proportionately at the congressional district level, all based on voters’ votes either in the state or congressional district. There are 19 “pledged party leader” delegates.

These congressional districts have varied numbers of delegates. That’s because there’s a not very well known rule (that both parties have, although it works differently for the parties and there’s also variations by state, because why not make this whole thing as complicated as possible) that gives more delegates to areas that have shown greater support for the political party.

2016 Ohio Democratic party delegate allocation for delegates awarded by congressional district

2016 Ohio Democratic party delegate allocation for delegates awarded by congressional district

In Ohio, this translates into congressional districts getting somewhere between 4 and 17 convention delegates. Those are divided based on the votes for the candidates in those congressional districts.

You can see that breakdown in the chart to your right, which can be found in a document laying out the state’s delegate selection plan.

If you’ve followed me this far, good for you.

One final implication: Regional patterns and demographics will affect delegate allocation at the congressional district level. 

Here’s an example: The district with the most delegates is the 11th congressional district. It gets the most delegates because it votes for Democrats so much. It also happens to have a small percentage of white voters — about 40.5%. If the demographic patterns we’ve seen in the 2016 Democratic race are seen in Ohio, one would expect Clinton to do very well in this district.

Different people will judge this rule in varied ways and what one should think of it probably deserves discussion some other time. In any case, it’s a pretty long standing rule in delegate allocation and it’s one that smart campaigns, like Obama’s in 2008, worked hard to try to make work for itself.

And when you watch the polls and votes come in, keep in mind that statewide numbers only matter so much.


*What are “pledged party leader delegates?” This is a pool of delegates, that as Putnam explains, “is distinct from the so-called superdelegates in that they are pledged to presidential candidates based on the statewide results of the various primaries and caucuses.”

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.