Delegate Math Predicts an Uncertain Summer for Democrats

    Guest columnist Dana Houle pens a fascinating analysis on the potential of a brokered convention.

    It is almost certain that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama will secure the Democratic presidential nomination prior to the Democratic convention this August in Denver. That could lead to a few more months of exciting primaries and caucuses and continued record Democratic turnout. But it could also leave Democrats without a presumptive nominee during the crucial early stages of the general election campaign.Last week the New York Times reported that Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean floated out an offer to broker a deal between Clinton and Obama to avoid waiting until the Denver convention to determine the party’s presidential nominee.

    “I think we will have a nominee sometime in the middle of March or April,” Mr. Dean said Wednesday on the NY1 cable news channel, “but if we don’t, then we’re going to have to get the candidates together and make some kind of an arrangement. Because I don’t think we can afford to have a brokered convention; that would not be good news for either party.”

    There are several reasons why Dean wants the nomination decided before August. So far the tight race has mostly been a positive for the Democratic Party. Democrats continue to post record turnouts, and polls show that most voters are satisfied with both candidates and that they will enthusiastically support whoever gets the nomination. The candidates have not been excessively negative. But if we get into a long slog to the convention, expect more sniping and bitterness than we’ve seen. With little happening after the middle of March — by March 12, 84 percent of the delegates allocated through primaries and caucuses will have already been contested — there won’t be much campaigning to keep the candidates, their campaigns and especially their supporters occupied and out of trouble. 

    Furthermore, much of the Democratic campaign infrastructure for the fall is already being put into place. Battleground states will have “coordinated campaigns” that do much of the direct voter contact such as canvassing, phone banking and direct mail and running the get out the vote (GOTV) operations. Unions and other entities run “independent expenditure” campaigns in which they air advertising independent of anything done by the candidate’s campaign. Mega-donors are prepared to donate tens of millions of dollars to groups called 527s (named for a provision in the tax code), and those organizations will run advertising in a couple dozens states against the Republican nominee. And the Democratic nominee typically places dozens of staffers at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for the peak campaign season.

    Many of the staff for these operations will come from the staff of the presidential primary campaigns. Obviously, these people aren’t available and may not be for some time. Authority over some of these operations will depend on who wins the nomination. These operations will need to be in full gear by August, so either the nominee will need to be known by then, or people will immediately need to start scrambling to devise and implement a feasible Plan B.

    Finally, the longer the candidates raise and spend money against each other, the longer the Republicans get a free ride, and eventually free shots at both Democrats.

    But, you may be thinking, don’t we always know who our candidate will be before the convention? Yes, but this year is likely to be different, because unless there is a deal between the two candidates paving the way for one to be the nominee, mathematically, there is almost no way the nomination will be settled before the convention.

    To understand why Dean wants to broker a deal, we have to look at the delegate count. There are two types of delegates. About 80 percent of the 4,049 delegates currently allocated for the Denver convention are pledged delegates. Pledged delegates are those who are “pledged” to a candidate based on the candidate’s performance in their state’s nomination contest. Most states and territories have primaries, some have caucuses, and a few have hybrids or a state convention. Seventy-five percent of a state’s pledged delegates are allocated by the candidate’s performance in a congressional district or similar boundary, with the remaining 25 percent allocated in proportion to the statewide results. (This is for states with more than one congressional district.)

    Republicans award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, usually by the entire state, although some places award delegates based upon winners of congressional districts. Democrats, however, award pledged delegates in proportion to their share of the vote. If a candidate receives at least 15 percent of the vote in either a congressional district or statewide, he or she will receive at least one delegate from that jurisdiction. 

    There’s still some haggling over who’s garnered more pledged delegates, Clinton or Obama. Prior to this weekend’s contests, they were both at approximately 900 pledged delegates (so that’s what we’ll use in these hypotheticals). Fifty-six percent of the pledged delegates had already been contested. 

    The other 20 percent of delegates in Denver will be unpledged delegates, who are often referred to as “superdelgates.” These people are mostly elected officials. All Democrats elected to the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives or as governor of their state are automatically superdelegates. Most of the rest are mayors, legislators, state and local party leaders, union officials and the like, and are elected in conventions or caucuses conducted by state Democratic parties.

    To reach 2,025 — the magic number for locking up the nomination — from only pledged delegates, without having to count on a single unpledged delegate, one of the candidates will have to win almost four out of five of the remaining delegates, who are about 44 percent of the total pledged delegates. That appears impossible. 

    If one of the candidates wins 70 percent of the remaining pledged delegates — which is highly unlikely — they will have about 1,900 total pledged delegates. They would need an additional 125 votes from unpledged delegates, or 16 percent of the unpledged delegates. Both candidates already have public endorsements to ensure they could seal the nomination if they only need that few unpledged delegates. But it’s not very plausible that one of the candidates will win 70 percent of the remaining delegates.

    More likely is that one of the candidates wins 55 percent of the remaining pledged delegates. That will give her or him just under 1,700 pledged delegates, or roughly 325 delegates short of a majority. That’s equal to 42 percent of the total number of unpledged delegates. While that could make for compelling television, it would also probably mean we will not know our nominee until the convention.

    Of course what could change all these calculations is the situation with the delegates from Michigan and Florida. The DNC’s position has been that because those two states broke DNC rules and jumped ahead of the Super Tuesday states, their punishment is a 100 percent reduction in delegates. All of the candidates honored the DNC’s rules against campaigning in those states, and Obama and John Edwards even removed their names from the Michigan ballot. Clinton received more votes in both.

    After Obama’s big win in South Carolina presaged a long campaign, Clinton began calling for those candidates to be seated at the convention (giving her, of course, a net gain of probably 75 or so delegates). This is Dean’s nightmare scenario, because the fight over whether to reverse the DNC’s previous decision (and in effect possibly throw the nomination to Clinton) could create acrimony within the party akin to the national acrimony over the Florida recount and Bush vs. Gore. Dean obviously wants to avoid that.

    One possibility that avoids the fight within the credentials committee over whether to seat the Michigan and Florida delegates would be for those states to hold DNC-sanctioned contests, probably in June after the scheduled contests, and probably conducted as party-run (as opposed to state-conducted) closed primaries. That might be a fall-back plan should he not succeed in cutting a deal in March or April (which seems improbable at this point). 

    If nobody can cut a deal, and Michigan and Florida don’t conduct new contests, the math is clear: If the contest goes until the last primaries in June, and neither candidate suffers a massive collapse, we won’t know our nominee until the Democratic convention in Denver at the end of August.

    Dana Houle is a political consultant and contributing editor at

    Comments are closed.