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Sanders Shouldn’t Expect A Big Delegate Boost From Candidates Who Dropped Out

With Super Tuesday under our belts and contests in six more states wrapping up on Tuesday,1 we are in the thick of the March delegate blitz. Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio vote on March 17, and by the end of March, almost two-thirds of delegates will have been awarded. But most of the focus is still on the actual delegate allocation process, or how many delegates a candidate earns based on the results of primaries and caucuses, and not the delegate selection process.

That’s right, those 125 delegates being divvied up in Michigan are actual people, and it sometimes takes months before these delegates are actually selected. And although the process happens at the state level, campaigns have the right to review all delegates selected to represent them at the convention under the delegate selection plans each state party submitted to the Democratic National Committee. Obviously there is some variation across campaigns: Some are better organized and more adept at navigating the selection process, while others are less organized. But the important thing to remember here is that while around two-thirds of pledged delegates will have been allocated by the end of March, only a little more than 8 percent will have been selected. It is not until the end of May that two-thirds of the pledged delegates will have been selected.

Normally, this would not mean all that much. Typically, the field of candidates winnows before delegates are allocated in large numbers, much less before individual delegates are selected. But 2020 has been different in this regard. Multiple candidates have won pledged delegates, so as they drop out, they trigger a mechanism in the selection process that could reshape the delegate count: the reallocation of statewide delegates.2

When a candidate drops out of the race before statewide delegates are selected, the delegates they won are automatically reallocated to candidates who are still in the race and received more than 15 percent of the vote statewide in that state’s contest. For instance, in Iowa, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s five statewide delegates and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s three would be proportionally reallocated to former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders based on the share of the vote they won in Iowa — five for Sanders and three for Biden — assuming they’re both still in the race.3 (District delegates, on the other hand, which are selected based on the results of individual congressional districts, are more or less locked in once they have been allocated. Meaning, for example, there will still be 18 district delegates pledged to Buttigieg from Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.)

In total, there were nine states that voted on or before Super Tuesday where at least three candidates cleared the 15 percent threshold statewide.4 And even though Sanders finished ahead of Biden in four of those nine states, the delegate reallocation process looks like it’ll be a wash — Biden is projected to get 23 delegates and Sanders 25 — and that’s even counting New Hampshire, where Sanders gets all 5 reallocated delegates, as he is the only candidate left who won more than 15 percent statewide.

The delegate reallocation process is kind of a wash

Number of statewide delegates Biden and Sanders are expected to receive in the reallocation process for states where a candidate who has since dropped out won a statewide delegate

State Reallocated Delegates Biden gains Sanders gains
Iowa 8 3 5
New Hampshire 5 5
Arkansas 2 2
Colorado 9 4 5
Maine 2 2
Massachusetts 8 5 3
Minnesota 5 3 2
Tennessee 5 3 2
Utah 4 1 3
Total 48 23 25

Sanders was hampered by Biden winning in five of these nine states where three or more candidates surpassed the 15 percent delegate threshold. There were also fewer delegates up for grabs in the reallocation process than there might have otherwise been, because in five states, only one candidate had delegates to redistribute: either former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

There were two Super Tuesday states — Colorado and Utah — where four candidates were above 15 percent statewide, and Sanders won both these states. But while this meant that a handful more reallocated delegates are up for grabs, it still won’t be enough to help break in Sanders’s direction in any meaningful way. Rather, Sanders would net just one more delegate in the Colorado reallocation, even though he won the state by more than 12 points.

This is more bad news for Sanders — as the early front-runner, he would have been in position to gain ground in the reallocation process, smoothing his path to the nomination, and the most surefire way of making gains this way was to have a crowded field with many candidates clearing 15 percent statewide. But with the field winnowing to just two candidates, that opportunity to close the gap in the delegate allocation process has largely passed. In the end, there were few opportunities for Sanders to pick up reallocated delegates, and he’ll now have to hang his hopes on winning more delegates the old-fashioned way — winning states outright.

Footnotes

  1. The Democrats Abroad primary also ended on Tuesday.

  2. This includes both at-large and party leader and elected official (PLEO) delegates.

  3. At-large and PLEO delegates will not be selected in Iowa until June 13, though, which is after the primary season has ended, so if everyone else has dropped out, the presumptive nominee will get all 8 delegates.

  4. In California, Sanders is currently leading Biden but officials are still counting votes. Right now only Sanders and Biden are above 15 percent, meaning there would be no statewide delegates to reallocate unless something changes.

Josh Putnam is a political scientist who runs the site FrontloadingHQ which mainly focuses on the rules of the presidential nomination process. He’s the founder of the elections consulting firm, FHQ Strategies, LLC.

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