Delegate types explained
Republican and Democratic delegates will attend national conventions later this year and cast votes to decide who wins their partys presidential nomination.
Each party apportions delegate votes to the various states and territories based on their population and complex calculations of party strength and support in recent elections.
There will be 4,234 delegates in all when the Democrats hold their convention beginning Aug. 25 in Denver. Republicans will have 2,380 delegates when they meet beginning Sept. 1 in Minneapolis. Both parties award their presidential nominations to the first candidate to win a majority of delegates. That means 2,118 delegates are required to win the Democratic nomination; 1,191 to win the Republican.
Democrats originally planned to have 4,416 delegates, but squabbles between the national party and some state parties over the scheduling of early primaries led to sanctions that stripped Michigan and Florida of half their delegates. Republicans had originally planned to have approximately 2,517 delegates, but similar scheduling disputes led to Michigan, Florida, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Wyoming losing half their delegates.
Delegates fall into two basic types, pledged and unpledged.
Pledged delegates must vote for specific presidential candidates at the national convention, for at least the first ballot. Usually they are bound by the results of the states presidential primary, or by the preferences of those attending caucuses or the state convention.
About 80 percent of the delegates to the Democratic convention and 82 percent of the delegates to the Republican convention will be pledged.
There are two basic subtypes of pledged delegates; district level and at large. District-level delegates are almost always associated with congressional districts. The exceptions are Texas, where they represent state senate districts, and Delaware and New Jersey, which have artificial delegate districts.
At-large delegates are considered statewide delegates.
Democrats: For Democrats, district and at-large delegates are always pledged, and they are part of the states base delegation. Base delegations also include a third type of pledged delegate, party leaders and elected officials, or PLEO. These are typically big city mayors, legislative leaders, county party officials, etc., and they make up about 15 percent of all delegates.
Under Democratic National Committee rules, district-level delegates are allocated proportionally to candidates based on the primary or caucus vote in that district. At-large and PLEO delegates are allocated proportionally based on statewide primary or caucus vote totals.
Democratic presidential candidates must receive at least 15 percent of the vote in a jurisdiction to qualify for pledged delegates.
Republicans: Republicans have less strict rules about the number and type of pledged delegates. Some state parties treat all their pledged delegates as at large (for example, New Hampshire), some treat them all as district delegates (for example, Rhode Island), and some use both district and at large designations.
Republicans have not standardized how pledged delegates are allocated. Some states award them in winner-take-all fashion to the presidential candidate with the most statewide presidential primary votes (for example, New York and New Jersey). Others award three district delegates to the winner of a particular congressional district, and award the at-large delegates to the statewide winner (for example, Georgia and Oklahoma). Others directly elect delegate candidates on the presidential primary ballot, with the delegate candidates receiving the most votes going to the national convention, either pledged to specific presidential candidates (for example, Illinois) or as unpledged delegates (for example, Pennsylvania). Other states use some combination of district or statewide proportional allocation, with specific rules varying significantly.
In some circumstances pledged delegates are released from their requirement to support a candidate. For Democrats, at large and PLEO delegates are released if a candidate withdraws from the presidential race before the delegates themselves are selected. If the delegates have already been selected a candidate keeps those delegate votes in spite of withdrawing. District delegates remain bound to a candidate for one ballot at the national convention even if that candidate drops out.
Republican pledged delegates can be released by the withdrawn candidate, depending on state party rules.
Unpledged delegates are by definition free agents who are not bound by the results of a states primary or caucuses. They can vote for whomever they like at the national convention.
Democrats: Each states number of unpledged delegates is based on:
- The number of Democratic National Committee members from that state
- The number of Democratic members of Congress from that state
- Whether that state has a Democratic governor
- That states number of distinguished party leaders, such as former presidents or vice presidents, former US Senate leaders, or US House Speakers
- An add-on group of unpledged delegate spots based on that states Democratic National Committee member votes.
Republicans: The GOPs rules for unpledged delegates are much less standardized. Some states consider all of their delegates to be unpledged (for example, Pennsylvania and Iowa), while others designate their at-large delegations as unpledged (for example, Illinois). Some have no unpledged delegates at all, and consider their entire delegation pledged (for example, Arizona).
Republicans also award what are known as Republican National Committee member delegates. Each state is automatically apportioned three delegates for the GOP party chair, the national committeeman, and the national committeewoman, all of whom are members of the Republican National Committee. There are no national rules about the pledged vs. unpledged status of these three delegates. Some states, such as Arizona, treat them the same as their other at-large delegates and make them bound by primary results. Others, such as Connecticut, treat them differently and make them unpledged.
Unpledged delegates should not be confused with uncommitted delegates. The latter are usually pledged delegates who are bound to vote uncommitted at the national convention because the presidential preference uncommitted did well enough in a primary or convention to qualify for pledged delegates. In other words, uncommitted is treated much like a presidential candidate.
Boston.com gets its delegate counts from the Associated Press, which tracks the non-binding preferences of unpledged delegates by calling and interviewing them.