Primary season began back on Feb. 3 in Iowa with a competitive, multicandidate race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and some reasonable chance that the process would end with tense delegate counting at the national convention in Milwaukee. However, after a string of primary losses in March and April, Sen. Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign and former Vice President Joe Biden is now the presumptive Democratic nominee.
But that doesn’t mean that delegate counting is over. There are still 24 delayed and reconfigured contests with a combined 1,555 delegates at stake. Sure, Biden has already amassed 1,293 delegates1 and is very likely to exceed the 1,991 pledged delegates necessary to clinch the nomination. But just how many delegates Sanders can rack up matters, because that will impact the concessions he and his campaign can win from Biden and the Democratic National Committee.
Any leverage Sanders has in that back and forth with Biden and the DNC hinges on three main factors. And two could work against the Vermont senator in any talks with the Biden team.
First, Sanders stands to lose a significant number of delegates headed into the convention. According to the DNC’s 2020 delegate selection rules, any candidate who is no longer running loses the statewide delegates2 they have won and those delegates are then reallocated to candidates still in the race. (That has not necessarily been how the DNC has interpreted this rule previously, but it is how the DNC has signaled that it will use it in 2020.) Second, if Sanders fails to clear the 25 percent delegate threshold required to secure representatives on convention committees, it’ll be harder to integrate his policies into the official DNC platform.
I’ve written previously for FiveThirtyEight about delegate reallocation and what that looked like after the race became a one-on-one contest between Biden and Sanders (a bit of a wash, with Biden picking up 23 statewide delegates and Sanders 25 from the early and Super Tuesday states). But now that Sanders has suspended his campaign, the delegates he won prior to dropping out will be reallocated, meaning he could lose more than a third of his delegates — 365 statewide delegates in total.
That matters because without those statewide delegates, it would be nearly impossible for Sanders to clear the 25 percent delegate threshold needed to secure a spot on convention committees.3
Why does a seat at the table on these committees matter? Well, the answer circles back to the concessions that Sanders, his campaign and his supporters would like to extract from the DNC and Biden. Making up 25 percent or more of the delegates on the various convention committees means that the Sanders contingent at the convention would have a seat at the table.
Sanders still doesn’t have 20 percent of all pledged delegates, but 25 percent is within his reach should he continue to clear the 15 percent threshold to qualify for delegates in the remaining contests. And if Alaska is any indication, then Sanders will be in decent shape to get there. Biden took eight delegates in the Last Frontier to Sanders’s seven. But that effort takes a hit if the Vermont senator loses more than a third of the delegates he has won to date. That would leave Sanders with just 12 percent of pledged delegates.
Here’s the thing, though: The delegate math may not actually matter all that much. The Biden campaign seems keen to avoid the mistakes of 2016. They have already moved toward Sanders’s position on a number of issues, like expanding Medicare and student loan forgiveness programs, and have even floated letting Sanders keep his statewide delegates, rather than have them reallocated to Biden.
Party unity — or at least the appearance of it — is at a premium for Democrats, and the Sanders campaign knows this. It’s this third factor that Sanders’s leverage hinges on, and arguably, it’s the one that could work best to his advantage.
It is still a delicate dance for Sanders, though, as the rules as they currently stand could cost him. Treated like the other candidates who won delegates but then withdrew, Sanders would lose a seat at the table, so the next move is Biden’s.