What's even sexier than the popular vote? The delegate count, obviously.

There’s something sexy about the popular vote. From watching the numbers fluctuate live on the day of a race to the whole “participating in our democracy/expressing the will of the people” thing, the popular vote has some spark to it.

What’s even sexier than the popular vote? The delegate count, obviously.

Delegates are people chosen from each state to represent a candidate at either the Republican or Democratic National Convention in the summer, and they ultimately determine who wins the nomination. The number of delegates per state varies based on states’ populations, similar to electoral votes during the general election.

Delegate math might not be the most thrilling aspect of the electoral process, but it’s important to be aware of, since it’s possible for a candidate to get more delegates with fewer popular votes than his or her contenders.

The Numbers

A Democratic candidate will need at least 2,382 delegates (one more than half the total allocated by the Democratic Party) to win the nomination, and the Republican winner will need at least 1,237 delegates (one more than half of what the Republican Party offers).

" ... as the first states to vote, they can set the tone for campaigns, either propelling them upward or sinking them early on."

Let’s give these numbers some context. So far, candidates have competed in Iowa and New Hampshire; a total of 76 delegates have been awarded to Democrats, and 53 to Republicans. Small numbers in a big-number race. Still, those early contests, and the two coming up, are considered a huge deal because, as the first states to vote, they can set the tone for campaigns, either propelling them upward or sinking them early on.

Between Feb. 20 and 27, there are four different races going on: the Democratic caucuses in Nevada and the South Carolina Republican primary take place on Feb. 20, the Republican caucuses in Nevada are on Feb. 23, and, finally, the South Carolina Democratic primary is on Feb. 27. (For the difference between caucuses and primaries, see here.)

Democrats have 88 delegates at stake between the two states, and Republicans have 80 – still pretty small numbers considering that a candidate needs so many to win. But things are about to pick up real quick on what is known as “Super Tuesday,” which will take place on March 1; several states hold their contests on that day. More than a quarter of Republican delegates and more than one-fifth of Democratic delegates will be up for grabs.

Allocation Discombobulation

Pretty straight forward so far, right? Well, the Republicans are going to go ahead and make things more difficult for us concerning how states allocate their delegates to candidates.

The Democrats go easy on us here, awarding them all proportionally, meaning that a candidate who gets, say, 30 percent of the popular vote will get about 30 percent of the delegates (the number won’t match up perfectly, since a state may not have a delegate count of 30 or whatever percent of which equals a whole number).

Some states do the same on the Republican side, and all states with contests between March 1 and March 14 have to. That’s a rule implemented so that a candidate doesn’t end up winning enough delegates for nomination so early on before the rest of the states get a chance to weigh in.

But many states have the option to allocate delegates in a winner-take-all fashion. Let’s use the upcoming South Carolina Republican primary for a concrete example of how complex things can get.

Each of South Carolina’s seven congressional districts has three Republican delegates; whoever wins in each district gets all three delegates. The remaining 29 delegates in the state go to the Republican candidate who wins the primary. That means whoever comes in second, third, and so on gets nothing, unless he happens to win one or more congressional districts.

Now, not every state functions like South Carolina. Some states do proportional allocation; some allow for winner-take-all only if a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the popular vote; some states do statewide proportional allocation but allow for winner-take-all when it comes to congressional district delegates. See this chart for state-by-state information.

Why It All Matters

The primary election process is not perfectly representative of the will of the people for a few reasons, including:

1) The delegate count doesn’t perfectly match up with the number of voters – i.e., two states could have the same number of delegates but slightly different population sizes, so there can be a discrepancy between the popular vote winner and the delegate winner

2) On the Republican side, states that allocate all their delegates to winners can undermine candidates who won other states but received only proportional allocation.

What About Those Super Ones?

I wish I could tell you that this is all you need to know, but sorry, there’s another crucial piece of the delegate situation that interferes with the whole representation angle.

This post has only dealt with pledged delegates, those that have to show support for a candidate at the conventions based on the results of primaries or caucuses from their states. But there are unpledged delegates in the game, too – those who can support any candidate they wish at the conventions, regardless of how the people voted.

Who the hell are these free agents? How many are there? Why do they exist, and how might they factor into this election? Strap in for all that, coming soon.

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Posted 02.19.2016 - 05:30 pm EST