Pledged, super, unbound: Delegates 101

Each major US party has its own delegate system – and idiosyncrasies. And in this hotly contested election cycle, free agents are taking on new importance.

Charlie Riedel/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally May 3 in Louisville, Ky. Senator Sanders won the Indiana primary Tuesday and continues to attract thousands of supporters to events, but he lags front-runner Hillary Clinton in delegates.

Most delegates to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are divvied up among presidential candidates via state votes. But some delegates aren’t, and in this hotly contested election cycle, free agents are taking on new importance.

Q: Why are some Democratic delegates “super”?
Democratic rules call for 4,765 total delegates to attend the party’s convention in Philadelphia July 25 to 28. A candidate needs a majority of them – 2,383 – to win the nomination.

Voters in state primaries or caucuses will elect or choose most of this crowd. This is what the talking heads have labeled “pledged delegates.” But 712 delegates are special. They’re “superdelegates” – party committee leaders, elected officials, and other Democratic celebrities from various states.

Superdelegates are not pledged. They’ll go to Philadelphia able to vote for anyone they choose. Even themselves! (That probably won’t happen, though.)
In practice, many superdelegates have already endorsed a candidate, indicating what they intend to do. As of April 25, Hillary Clinton has been endorsed by 513, according to RealClearPolitics’ delegate tracker. Thirty eight have endorsed Bernie Sanders.

Theoretically, they could still switch. Endorsing a political candidate is like advertising which team you like better, Red Sox or Yankees. It isn’t binding. It’s advisory, pending how the standings develop.

Q: Would superdelegates give the nomination to Mrs. Clinton even if Senator Sanders leads in pledged delegates?

Probably not. It’s true that Democratic Party pooh-bahs dreamed up superdelegates in the mid-1980s as a moderating force. They were still scarred by the nomination of liberal George McGovern in 1972, and they wanted reforms to boost the influence of political professionals and push the party toward more-electable choices.

But in practice, superdelegates haven’t overturned the will of the voters. In 2008, for example, Clinton superdelegates could have made things difficult at the Democratic convention for Barack Obama, whose lead in pledged delegates was narrow. They refrained.

“Superdelegates have basically served to ratify the choice of primary voters since 1984,” wrote political scientist Josh Putnam of the University of Georgia, a leading expert on US presidential nomination rules, in 2009.

Q: Does the Republican Party have superdelegates, too?

A total of 2,472 delegates will attend the Republican convention in Cleveland July 18 to 21. None of them will be superdelegates of the Democratic mold. The GOP has no special-access-pass category for party elders and elected officials.

However, this does not mean all the Republican delegates will be pledged delegates, bound by primary or caucus results to vote for a particular candidate on initial ballots. The GOP has free-agent delegates, too – and they could play a crucial role in 2016.

About 200 GOP delegates will be officially unbound at the convention. A bit more than half will be from states or territories that didn’t hold a primary or caucus, or allow delegates to run unpledged, or have other impenetrable rules. Pennsylvania’s beauty contest primary produced 54 unpledged delegates, for instance. Guam and American Samoa produced 18.

The rest will be delegates won by candidates who subsequently dropped out of the race. Different states have different rules on when and how these orphan delegates become free to vote for others. But many will arrive in Cleveland able to throw their support wherever they want.

It is easy to see how this pool of unbound delegates could become 2016’s GOP kingmakers. Donald Trump will come to Cleveland with the most pledged delegates, but it’s not certain he’ll have a majority – 1,237. If he’s 50 delegates short, he’ll be wooing the unbound with dinners, plane rides, and maybe Mar-a-Lago passes for life.

Meanwhile, the #NeverTrump forces will be doing everything they can to tug these delegates to their side.

Q: What happens to the GOP delegates if Mr. Trump doesn’t win a majority right off?

That’s a great question. The answer shows how bonkers the Republican convention could become.

Trump is the only candidate mathematically able to get 1,237 votes on the convention’s first ballot. If he doesn’t, the pledged delegates begin to transform into unpledged free agents, too. Cinderella’s carriage would start to turn into a pumpkin, or something like that.

This would happen because primaries and caucuses bind delegates for only a few ballots. State rules vary, but by the second ballot, something like 60 percent of the delegates would be free to vote for the candidate of their choice. By the fourth ballot, everybody would be unbound.

A contested convention, full of excitement and possibly chaos, would ensue.

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