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Demystifying the Presidential Nomination Process

Updated: Jul 3

Contributed by Victoria Dinov, New Voters Communications Intern


The current presidential nomination system in the United States is one of the most expensive, lengthy, and complex in the world. Presidential candidates gather together every four years to compete in a series of state contests before the general election in order to win their party’s nomination. Each contest — either a primary or caucus — determines the number of delegates each candidate has won. The candidate who accrues the largest share of delegates during the process wins the nomination and advances to the general election race.

But who are delegates? What is their role in American democracy? How are they selected? Delegates are chosen to represent the interests of the citizens and nationals in the United States, so it is crucial for all voters to understand their role in our presidential nomination process.


Who are delegates?


The first thing for those voting in the presidential contests to realize is that they are not directly voting for a candidate. Instead, they are voting for delegates to represent their interests at the party presidential nominating convention. These conventions ultimately decide the top candidate from each party to advance to the general election.


Delegates are often people heavily involved in state politics: a mix of local party chairs, local officials, volunteers and interested citizens. Delegate roles in politics are frequently markers of confusion in our current democracy as their selection depends on party and state rules, and their function in democracy continuously evolves throughout time.


What are the different types of delegates?


There are various types of delegates, and each party sets its own rules regarding the selection of its delegates.


Delegate allocation is generally determined by a formula that factors in the state's population, electoral votes, and date of the primary. Sometimes, delegates are also chosen on the basis of the state’s popular vote for the party nominee in previous elections. Regardless of the selection process, each state has a mix of delegate types. The category breakdown goes as follows:

District delegates: These delegates represent geographical entities within states, usually along the lines of congressional district boundaries. The only requirements for district delegates is that they must live and vote in their particular district. The Republican Party allocates three delegates to each congressional district, while the Democratic Party determines district delegates based on population.


At-large (or state) delegates: At-large delegates represent constituents at the statewide level and are primarily allocated to candidates in direct proportion to their statewide support. At-large delegates are generally a small pool of people selected by party officials that tend to have a strong relationship with their state party.


Pledged party leaders and elected officials: These positions are generally reserved for more prominent figures in politics such as statewide elected officials or city mayors. They are often set aside for party leaders and are chosen based on party loyalty. Pledged party leaders are chosen much like at-large delegates, and make up a very small portion of both major parties’ delegate batch.


Automatic delegates (or superdelegates): Superdelegates are chosen in advance, and are often considered the top dogs of their respective political parties. They include governors, members of Congress, members of the national party committee in their states, or even past major party leaders. The special attribute of superdelegates is that they are not pledged to any one candidate, and are instead allowed to vote on the basis of their own consciences. Thus, their role is often very controversial, as many view their function as biased party control of the nomination process. In response to rising concerns, both the GOP and the Democrats have moved to address the issue by reducing the amount of superdelegates and limiting the power and autonomy of the current superdelegates in the coming elections.


How are delegates chosen?


Federal law does not have set rules for how states choose their delegates, leaving room for individual states to design their own systems. The majority of states today use the primary system (containing variation therein), which allows voters statewide to simply cast their votes for the candidate they support, but some states still use the caucus system- which is a bit more complicated.


In primaries, parties choose their presidential candidate through direct voting, generally utilizing the secret ballot. There are two main types of primaries: open primaries, in which voters of any affiliation can cast their ballots for either party, and closed primaries, in which registered voters may only cast their ballots if they are affiliated with the given party. Closed primaries are straightforward: allowing only voters of that particular party to cast their ballots for the candidate that will represent them in the general election. The open primary format is a bit more controversial because it often leads to party sabotage, which is when voters of one party attempt to change the result of the opposing party’s election by voting for the weaker candidate. However, supporters of the open primary counter argue that it advances the ideals of democracy by allowing all registered voters to vote for candidates that will potentially represent them.


The other form of selection is the caucus system. A caucus is a local meeting in which voters convene at a public venue (usually a school gym or town hall) to display support for various candidates through physical means. Each section of the meeting room is cordoned off to represent a particular candidate, and voters are free to educate themselves on each candidate and engage in conversation in order to reach a final voting decision. One of the main differences between a caucus and a primary is that many voters participating in the caucus change their preferred candidate based on the attempts of friends and neighbors to get them to relocate. Many states have moved away from the caucus format due to its lack of anonymity, leaving only 14 states in 2016 using the caucus process, and a mere 5 states using the caucus for the democratic party nomination in 2020.


How do candidates win delegates?


There are two main methods through which candidates win delegates. The first way is by proportion: if a state has 100 delegates and a candidate wins 70 percent of the vote, then that candidate comes away with 70 delegates from that particular state at the national convention. The second way is the winner-takes-all method. In this method, candidates who win the majority of the vote (51 percent or more) win all of that state’s delegates.


The process of winning delegates also gets more complicated when candidates drop out of the race as the process wears on. In some instances, a dropout’s delegates are turned over to a former rival based on an endorsement. In others, their delegates go to the national convention uncommitted (much like the superdelegates) and are allowed to vote independently.


For candidates to formally win the nomination process, they need the so-called golden number (a majority of all delegates excluding superdelegates). In 2020, the Republican Party had around 2,550 delegates, so the majority leader needed to accumulate more than 1,276 delegates in order to win the nomination (Donald Trump reached this mark). In contrast the Democratic Party had as many as 3,979 delegates, leaving the winning candidate to gather 1,991 delegates to secure the nomination (Joe Biden has currently secured 2,144 delegates).


What exactly do delegates do?


The primary function of the selected delegates is to vote for each party’s candidate for president. However, many delegates take on the additional role of drafting the party platform: defining the party priorities and policy preferences. The delegates also act as spokespeople for the parties, candidates and issues throughout the presidential nomination cycle.


What happens at national conventions?


The primary purpose of the national convention is to select the presidential nominee. However, recent national conventions have been mainly ceremonial, as candidates are essentially already chosen by that point. Currently, they act as organized media events to highlight the presidential and vice presidential nominees and highlight the party’s message going into the general election.


In some rare cases, a clear frontrunner may not appear during the primary or caucus process. In this case, pledged delegates vote for their specific candidate and the automatic and at-large delegates vote accordingly. If no single candidate wins a majority, the party enters a brokered convention. This convention allows delegates the freedom to vote for whichever candidates they want. As candidates become eliminated throughout the process, commitments break down and the delegates become more powerful than ever in selecting the presidential nominee.


How do you use this information?


Now that you know where your votes are going in the presidential contests, it is important to show up at the polls and select delegates that will represent the interests of the people as a whole. It is also crucial to follow the selection process all the way to the national convention in order to get a better idea of each party’s next steps and policy breakdown going into the general election.


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