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How Delegates Are Awarded In The Presidential Primary


The presidential nominating contest is really a game of math - not which candidate wins the most states, but which racks up the most delegates before the party convention in the summer. We heard a lot about the delegate and superdelegate math four years ago, when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were battling for the Democratic presidential nomination. But the rules have changed, and NPR's Domenico Montanaro is here to explain the 2020 process.

Welcome back.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Thank you. And you're about to hear a lot more about them.

CORNISH: OK. Well, at this point, who is ahead in the delegate count in the Democratic Party?

MONTANARO: Well, really remarkably, it's Joe Biden. Biden has 566 delegates to Bernie Sanders' 501. Elizabeth Warren has 61 delegates. And Mike Bloomberg, former mayor of New York who dropped out today - he's got 53. Pete Buttigieg, who also dropped out - 26. Amy Klobuchar seven, and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has one.

Now, we should say that 297 delegates from last night have still not been allocated yet - a lot of those out of California, where Bernie Sanders won - 144 of those out of California. But that means that there's 153 elsewhere, where Joe Biden did pretty well, that also haven't been allocated. And, you know, that means that Joe Biden is very likely to, if not come out with the lead out of Super Tuesday, to be very, very close.

CORNISH: The question most of us has is the - have is the delegate counts for people who have dropped out, right? So former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg dropped out, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar. All three have endorsed Joe Biden. Does he get all of their delegates?

MONTANARO: Not necessarily. Like, this is not the way - you know, it's not like, I have $10. Here, you get all of it. Like, that's just not the way it works. They can actually go wherever they want. But obviously, with their endorsement and their backing, the likelihood is at the convention, they would probably go in that direction.

Now, I'm very skeptical that we're going to get to a point of a contested convention because we're going to know 90% of the delegates having been allocated by the end of next month. By the end of April, we're going to know pretty well who's in the pledged delegate lead for good. And there's going to be three months between the end of April to the convention in July for the party to figure it out.

CORNISH: How are delegates selected?

MONTANARO: You know, delegates are selected in a lot of different ways. You know, these - some of them are party leaders and elected officials. Some of them are part of candidate slates. So let's say you get, you know, a hundred delegates in California. You know, you can fill out a form that says that - basically, you know, has a number of people who you might trust or know, activists within the state, people who helped work on your campaign, who you want to reward and have them go to the convention for you. And you know that you can trust them (laughter) and that they will vote for you on the floor at the convention.

CORNISH: And then a word taking us back to 2016 - superdelegates.


CORNISH: Back then, they could vote for the candidate of their choice, even if that went against the majority of Democratic primary voters in their states. So how have the rules changed since then?

MONTANARO: Well, the rules have changed a lot. Bernie Sanders had protested some of the rules and didn't like the idea of superdelegates potentially making the determination. These are some of those establishment Democrats - the party leaders, elected officials. People like Bill Clinton are superdelegates - former presidents, leaders of the party.

But what's happened now is that on the first ballot at the convention, these quote-unquote "superdelegates" are not allowed to vote anymore. So whoever has that pledged delegate lead, if they have a majority vote - if they get 50% plus 1 - 1,991 delegates, which is what's needed for that 50% plus one - then, you know, you could do it with that and get the nomination without superdelegates.

By the way, they've had that superpower taken away from them, so they are now referred to as automatic delegates, not superdelegates.

CORNISH: Looking at the upcoming primary contests, what are you watching for?

MONTANARO: Well, Joe Biden really has the inside track here. I mean, he, you know, has states like Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana, New Jersey, Connecticut - big places, diverse populations, significant shares of the black vote that he really thinks he can do well with. However, Sanders really needs a big win next week in Michigan, where he won last time, so that he could turn this around and gain some more momentum. If he doesn't, it's going to be hard for him.

CORNISH: Domenico, thanks for the analysis.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.