We’re about halfway through the 2016 presidential primary, and everyone in the race is desperate to collect delegates like crazy over the next few months. This process can be confusing, especially since each party — and many states — operate by different rules. Below are some quick guidelines to help you figure out what’s going on. (TL;DR: Be sure to watch what happens in Florida and Ohio next week.)
(If you are an aspiring delegate who just wants advice on how to look fashionable at the convention and doesn’t really care about the fate of Marco Rubio, you can just skip to the end.)
So what do these delegates do, exactly?
Just as in the general election, when voters are basically playing a game of telephone with the Electoral College and hoping their wishes get translated into the final tally, voters in the primary are signalling their desires to an army of middlemen. When you cast your ballot for Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders or Vermin Supreme, you’re really just telling your delegates who you want them to vote for this summer at the party conventions.
How do you become a delegate?
It depends. The Constitution lets states run elections however the hell they want, which has left each state with a different web of rules governing its primary process — and made everything horrendously confusing. It’s as if you have 50 states sending competitors to a national spelling bee, and all the contestants practiced with different dictionaries.
While everyone is paying attention to the presidential campaigns, there are thousands of mini-campaigns going on at the same time, as would-be delegates gather signatures, write statements of candidacy, get handpicked by candidates, or are chosen at state conventions. Most of the delegates support a specific candidate; others are left to wait and see who their state votes for before getting assigned one. You don’t have to be a politician to be a delegate, either; college students, activists, local celebrities, candidate superfans, and state legislators can all give it a try. The bigger the state, the more delegates it gets to send to the convention. The Republican Party also gives extra delegates to states that voted red in the previous election cycle (ugh, long story).
The primary process also marks the only time when American territories get a say in the presidential election process. American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands all get to send delegates to the convention.
And then there are the superdelegates.
Are they going to be in the new Avengers movie?
No — and they won’t be at the Republican convention, either. Back in the ’80s, when Democratic leaders invented superdelegates, they were sort of conceived as superheroes destined to save the party from the loser candidates it had been nominating lately. Unlike those delegates wedded to a certain candidate by the will of the people, superdelegates can vote however they like, although they usually just end up voting for the candidate who is already winning. Right now, most of the 712 superdelegates — a mix of elected officials and state party leaders — are supporting Hillary Clinton, who has a substantial pledged delegate lead, too.
But it’s not clear why superdelegates still exist, as it seems to be the democratic equivalent of forcing all your friends to vote dozens of times for your favorite contestant on American Idol.
So we have a bunch of delegates. How does each state decide how to divvy them up?
Marrying the delegate allocation process to primaries is a relatively novel development that happened after the Democrats nominated a candidate who didn’t even compete in any primaries back in 1968. (That did not go over well.) Before that, primaries functioned only as a cherry-on-top; candidates who already won the affections of party leaders could point at a few primary wins and say, “The people love me too, how convenient!”
Because our country excels at making everything complicated, each party hands out delegates differently. But before anything else, people need to vote in their primary or caucus. And the pool of voters deciding what will happen to the delegates is quite small. Americans are notoriously bad at caring about the primaries — especially in states late in the calendar. In 2008, 16 percent of eligible voters in Iowa caucused. Less than 3 percent of eligible people voted in the Republican caucus in Kansas. Those voters tend to be more passionate about politics, more educated, and older than the general election populace, which means that the delegates get advice on who to side with in the election from only a small subset of the electorate.
But back to how states are awarding delegates, please?
The Democratic side is easier to understand, as most of the delegates are awarded to candidates proportionally. Win by a lot, get a lot of delegates. Lose by a little, get nearly as many delegates as the winner. This system makes it hard to win the requisite number of delegates quickly, but it also makes it hard for a candidate behind by a couple hundred delegates to catch up.
You have to pass a popularity test before getting access to the pot, however: If you can’t get more than 15 percent of the vote in any given state, forget about making any new delegate friends. This hasn’t been much of a problem in the Democratic race, as there are only two candidates.
Republicans award delegates a bit more... creatively. At the beginning of the race, delegates are split up mostly on a proportional basis (as is done with the Democrats), allowing candidates with less name recognition but a significant wedge of support to stay in the race. After a while, things get a bit more “to the victor go the spoils.” March 15 marks the first time when states are allowed to give all their delegates to the winner — though only nine states, with a combined 391 delegates, are taking this route. Another six are winner-take-most. Ultimately, more than half of the delegates are awarded on a sort of proportional basis, which is why there are still so many pity-inducing optimists left in the Republican race. Before 2012, Republican primaries mostly just rewarded winners; this new system has been very beneficial to Ted Cruz, expert runner-up.
A handful of other Republican states don’t even bother holding primaries or caucuses. In Colorado, for example, the chosen delegates are allowed to vote for whoever they want at the convention.
Okay, I get how delegates are awarded. But how many do you need to win?
Altogether, there are 2,472 delegates; you need 1,237 to win. Donald Trump currently has 458 delegates, per Real Clear Politics. Subtract about 100, and you’ve got Ted Cruz. Add up Marco Rubio and John Kasich’s count, and you have less than Cruz’s tally.
What happens if you don't get 1,237 delegates?
Have you heard whispers of "brokered convention" lately? That’s what will happen. Kasich and Rubio don’t quite have a path to victory anymore, given that they have no supporters, but both seem besotted with a happy ending consisting of either being their party's... second choice.
Forcing a brokered convention is also Mitt Romney’s brilliant plan to stop Trump, who is on track to win all those delegates if he keeps on keeping on. “Given the current delegate-selection process,” he said in his “How Do I Hate Trump? Let Me Count the Ways” speech last week, “that means that I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.” If no one gets the necessary votes on the first ballot, most of those pledged delegates are set to join the unbound in sweet freedom. It could get crazy, and take forever, kind of like if you mixed Norwegian reality TV and C-SPAN and then turned off the sound and just soundtracked it with the Vine of Donald Trump saying, “Bing bing bong bong bing bing bing.”
So... is that actually going to happen?
"The odds are certainly greater than they were last time," says Josh Putnam at the University of Georgia, who watches the delegate chase at his blog Frontloading. "I hesitate to put specific odds on it without knowing what will happen with those winner-take-all states next Tuesday."
Two of those winner-take-all states on March 15 happen to be Florida and Ohio — which two presidential candidates not named Trump call home. However, Trump is currently leading the polls in both states (although Kasich appears to be getting close in the one he governs). If Trump wins all the delegates in these two contests, though, the Republican establishment’s "settle for me" convention backup plan looks a bit too ambitious — like trying to get into Wharton with bad grades and no family connections. If Marco Rubio can find it in himself to get out of the race soon, it might help another candidate close the delegate gap, but it’s not clear he’s ready to face reality yet.
The calendar also might make it hard for Cruz to have much of an impact in upcoming weeks; the early primary states were conservative, Cruz-friendly places. Much of the rest of the calendar leans more moderate, as 538 pointed out in January.
In the end, something needs to change in this race if Trump is to lose; candidates need to drop out, or one of them needs to do something other than failing miserably.
So the big thing to watch next to see what will happen in the GOP race is...
Watch what happens in Florida, Ohio, and Arizona. More than 200 delegates will be awarded in those states alone. If Rubio and Kasich want to ever have a moment, this is their last chance. This could also when Trump basically sews this up. So many possibilities!
What about the Democratic race? How does the delegate math look over there?
It’s definitely a more sedate situation than what we have in the Republican race. Yes, Bernie Sanders has had a few surprising wins, but Clinton’s still pretty far ahead. “It’s going to be super-difficult for him to catch up to her,” Putnam says. And her lead isn’t completely built of superdelegate support that could crumble if the race changed: Clinton has about 200 more pledged delegates than Sanders at this point, leaving the Vermont Senator in the same position she was in back in 2008. Then, Obama managed to get ahead by about 100 delegates early in the race, and she never could never catch up.
What if you’re a delegate just waiting for this all to be over so you can just go to the darn convention already?
You don’t have to wait that much longer. Just chill out. The Republican National Convention starts on July 18 in Cleveland, and the Democratic National Convention will take place the following week in Philadelphia. You’ll finally get the chance to support your candidate, or the person in the lead, or watch all hell break loose.
While you wait, you can get ready by buying the most insane red, white, and blue hat you can find (presidential conventions are the closest American sartorial equivalent to the British royal wedding)...
... cover said hat in every pin you can find...
... make sure you represent your state well by wearing appropriate regional swag (more hats are acceptable)...
... find out what the strange dance fad of the moment is and become the world's greatest expert in it so all the TV networks film you...
... or just dance nonstop the entire time.