With Sen. Bernie Sanders’s exit from the race on Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden is now the presumptive Democratic nominee — but that doesn’t mean the presidential nomination process is over.
A number of states have yet to vote, and many will now vote much later than originally planned as a handful of states have postponed their primaries over the coronavirus epidemic. So one thing I’ve looked into is whether these adjustment to the primary calendar will affect the number of pledged delegates — of which there were initially 3,979 up for grabs — at the Democratic National Convention.
To be clear, the delegate changes we’re talking about here are not enough to alter the eventual outcome: Barring an act of God, Biden will be the nominee. But understanding the delegate changes could affect the former vice president’s path to the nomination. And any changes to the delegate numbers shifts the magic number (currently 1,991) needed to clinch the nomination. It could also signal how the Democratic National Committee might handle roadblocks to the nomination process moving forward.
There’s a couple of different ways by which the delegate total could change. First, there’s the bonus delegates the DNC apportions to states. Bonuses are awarded for two reasons: holding a primary or caucus later in the election cycle, or concurrent with neighboring states. States who hold contests in April receive a 10 percent delegate bonus and states with contests in May or later receive a 20 percent bonus. There is an additional 15 percent bonus for states that hold contests after March and on the same day as at least two other neighboring states.
Granted, due to the timing of the coronavirus epidemic, most of the states that moved their primaries or caucuses to later dates on the primary calendar already benefited from these timing and/or clustering bonuses. However, the three jurisdictions that postponed March primaries — Georgia, Ohio and Puerto Rico — could potentially gain new bonus delegates. All of the other states that postponed their primaries were already scheduled to vote after March, so their bonuses would transfer and, in some cases, increase.
But this isn’t true of every state. There are actually a handful of states that would lose bonus delegates under the new calendar. Take Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island, for example. Both Connecticut and Rhode Island shifted their contests from April 28 to June 2. New York, on the other hand, chose to consolidate its presidential primary with its primary for state and local offices, which was already scheduled for June 23. So while the timing bonus for Connecticut and Rhode Island would increase from 10 to 20 percent, both states would lose the 15 percent clustering bonus they received as part of the six-state “Acela primary” grouping because, with New York voting three weeks later, they no longer share a primary date with two adjoining states.
Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the three remaining “Acela primary” states, would all see their timing bonuses increase from 10 to 20 percent while maintaining their 15 percent clustering bonus. However, the 22 bonus delegates those states would gain as a cluster is less than the 34 bonus delegates that Georgia, Ohio and Puerto Rico would pick up by pushing their primaries into bonus-eligible territory.
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That said, the overall change to the delegate math is minimal. In total, we’re talking about an additional 55 delegates (including the three delegates lost under this new primary calendar). That hardly makes a difference when you consider that there are 3,979 pledged delegates at stake.
But delegate bonuses are not the only way the delegate calculus might change under the coronavirus threat. Some states could be impacted by penalties for violating Rule 12.A, the DNC’s “window rule,” which specifies that all states must have conducted their primaries and caucuses by June 9 this cycle.
Three states have blown past that deadline in rescheduling their primaries: Louisiana (June 20), plus Kentucky and New York (June 23). Those three states are now open to sanctions from the national party. The default penalty is a 50 percent delegation reduction for any state in violation.
But if the DNC were to penalize these three states, they’d lose even more delegates as none would still qualify for their bonus delegates. (The cut-off for states to hold their contest and receive bonus delegates is June 16.) That means these three states would lose their bonus delegates first, and then the 50 percent penalty would be applied to the original delegate total.
Moreover, since that 50 percent penalty is levied on every category of pledged delegates — district, at-large and PLEO (pledged party leader and elected officials) — and not on the sum of pledged delegates, a state could lose more than 50 percent of its baseline delegate total. And on top of all that, each state’s superdelegates would lose all of their voting privileges at the convention, not just on the roll call votes. In total, New York Democrats would lose nearly two-thirds of their delegation (64 percent) while both Kentucky (62 percent) and Louisiana (57 percent) would lose more than half.
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If this were to happen, the total number of pledged delegates at stake in the Democratic presidential nomination process would actually fall from 3,979 to 3,876, as the delegate penalties would outweigh any additional delegates added by timing and/or clustering bonuses.1
Here’s the thing, though: While all of this is true according to the rules the DNC laid out for the 2020 cycle, it may all end up being nothing more than a fun thought experiment.
Much of it has to do with the unprecedented impact the coronavirus pandemic has had not just on the primary calendar but also on the delegate selection process. Two-thirds of all pledged delegates were slated to have been chosen in district and state conventions across the country in April and May. But those are the exact types of gatherings prohibited by the stay-at-home orders expanding across the U.S., and they all fall during the period in which the spread of the virus is expected to peak.
To say that has sent both the DNC and state Democratic parties scrambling is an understatement. State party draft delegate selection plans were submitted to the DNC in May 2019, but those carefully laid plans have been blown up by the coronavirus. Alternate plans are hastily being drafted by state parties to run by the national party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee for approval. That task is hard enough in the lead-up to primary season, much less in the thick of it.
Given these unique challenges, what should we expect from the DNC with respect to any additional bonus delegates or penalties?
Probably not much. In my conversations with DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee members, I have been told that recalculating the bonus delegates is not a high priority. And that is mainly because of the problems it introduces.
Take Ohio, for example. District delegate slates were nominated there in January. So now all that’s left is plugging in the results of the April 28 primary to determine the share of delegates each candidate receives. This makes it hard to add delegates on the fly.
The same is true of delegate penalties. In New York, district delegate candidates have already filed to be on the June 23 primary ballot. And while it’s true that delegate candidates with the lowest number of votes in a given district could lose their spots as part of a delegate penalty, that is just another complication that the DNC likely does not want to deal with.
Ultimately, the DNC’s top priority is to help state parties complete their delegate selection processes before the national convention in August. (After all, there can be no convention if no delegates are selected.) But if there are changes, they will come from the Rules and Bylaws Committee. And while the group has signaled that holding a contest after June 9 constitutes a rules violation, it has also promised to work with state parties to complete their delegate selection processes. So my best advice is to look for the delegate numbers to stay largely similar to what they are now.