Eric Davis: Dem rules could stall frontrunners
Between Feb. 3 and March 3, voters in 18 states will vote in Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses. By the time all the votes are counted on Super Tuesday, March 3, the allocation of 1,506 Democratic convention delegates to candidates will have been determined.
The rules of the 2020 Democratic convention provide that on the first ballot for a presidential nominee, only pledged delegates elected through primaries and caucuses are allowed to vote. No votes from “superdelegates” — unpledged party and elected official delegates who also attend the convention — will be cast on the first presidential ballot.
There will be 3,836 pledged delegates at the convention. A candidate would need to win the votes of at least 1,919 delegates to be nominated on the first ballot. If no candidate wins a first ballot majority, the superdelegates would be able to vote on the second and subsequent ballots. In those circumstances, the number of votes needed to be nominated would be 2,298, a majority of the total of 3,836 pledged delegates and 758 superdelegates.
Democratic Party rules require that delegates be allocated to candidates in proportion to the share of the vote those candidates receive in the primaries and caucuses. Winner-take-all allocation rules, which award all delegates to the candidate who finishes first in a primary or caucus, are not allowed in the Democratic Party.
In most states, delegates are awarded proportionately at both the congressional district level and the statewide level. This latter provision does not apply in states like Vermont, where the entire state is one congressional district.
One important qualification to the Democratic proportional representation rules is that candidates must receive a minimum of 15 percent of the vote in a district, or statewide, in order to receive any delegates at all from that district or state. With such a large field of candidates in the early primaries and caucuses, many candidates will end up with no delegates because they will not be able to meet the 15 percent minimum requirement.
Recent polls in states voting in February and early March indicate that, at this time, only three candidates are consistently exceeding the 15 percent minimum in most states — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Pete Buttigieg is over 15 percent in several recent Iowa and New Hampshire polls, but not in other states.
In many states, Biden, Sanders, and Warren together are receiving support from between 65 and 70 percent of voters polled, with the rest of the field collectively receiving support from about one-third of those polled. The 15 percent minimum means that voters who vote for any of the candidates other than the top three would not be represented at all in their state’s convention delegation.
If these poll numbers hold up in February and March, Biden, Sanders and Warren could each have between 450 and 500 delegates after Super Tuesday. The number of delegates needed to win on the first ballot is 1,919. The number of pledged delegates to be elected after Super Tuesday is 2,330.
In this scenario, Biden, Sanders and Warren would each need at least 1,450 delegates from the post-Super Tuesday states to win a first-ballot nomination. With just 2,330 delegates remaining to be elected, that means a candidate would need to win more than 60 percent of the remaining delegates. If that did not happen, and if no candidate dropped out before the convention, no one would have a first-ballot majority, and the convention would go to a second ballot, where superdelegates would be able to vote.
For this scenario not to play itself out, one candidate — either one of the top three or someone else — would need to do so much better than expected in February or on Super Tuesday that he or she could consolidate support in March and April and realistically begin moving toward winning a majority of the pledged delegates.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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