Problem

What’s all the fuss over the presidential conventions? Party candidates fight for a year, campaigning across the country to drum up the most support from voters. At the end of it all, each party hosts their own national convention, where they reveal which campaigner got the most votes. The winners of the Democratic and Republican party then have a few months to repeat the campaign process to see who will become the next president. It’s an important process, yes, but it’s not nearly as complicated as everyone makes it out to be, right?

Explanation

Well, not exactly. This is because each person’s vote doesn’t go straight to the candidate. There’s a middleperson, called a delegate, who then gives their vote to a presidential candidate. Each state has a different number of delegates and they all have different rules for how their citizens’ voting results affect how their delegates can vote. 

Presidential Conventions and Delegates

A delegate is an official who the state’s citizens entrust to represent their best interest. Each state has their own number of delegates which belong to the Republican or Democratic party. It’s the job of a delegate to vote on which of their party’s candidates should become their presidential nominee.

How It Works

For the most part though, delegates don’t get to vote however they want. Rather, they are pledged to particular candidates. This means that when all their party’s delegates gather at the end of the year, they have to vote for that candidate.

A majority of states determine how their delegates are awarded based on the results of their people’s primaries. However, the different parties have different ways of interpreting the data collected by their registered voters.

The democratic party assigns state delegates proportionally to the number of votes candidates received in that state. This means that if in State A Democratic candidate Sally got 60% of the popular vote in the primary, she’d have 60% of State A’s democratic delegates. 

The rules for Republicans, in comparison, vary more among states. Some use the proportional system. Others, however, follow what’s colloquially called the winner-takes-all rule. This means that if in State B Republican candidate Jeff gets 70% of the popular vote in the primary, he gets all of State B’s Republican delegates. Still, some other states use a combination of the two: some of their Republican delegates are awarded proportionally, with the remaining delegates being reserved for the most popular candidate.

Not all delegates are pledged though. Some states’ Republican delegates don’t have to commit to a candidate until the Republican National Convention. On the Democratic side, there are delegates who are completely free to vote however they want. They are called superdelegates and are prominent party members like former presidents and members of Congress. 

After all the states have held their primaries and pledged their relevant delegates, the two parties host their own national conventions. There’s a long standing tradition that whichever party isn’t currently in the presidential office gets to hold their convention first. It’s at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions that each party’s presidential nominee is chosen.

Usually by the time the convention happens, there’s little doubt over who the winning party candidate will be. Since the national conventions are televised and covered closely by the media, it’s important for each party to display a united front. The important fight for the White House is about to begin after all: starting from a place of strength is vital. Thus, while national conventions used to be all about deciding the party nominee, convention goers today focus on refining party policy and celebrating their nominee’s accomplishment. 

Why Care?

While delegates are the ones who ultimately vote for the presidential nominees, the popular vote is still very important. State citizens inform their delegates’ decisions. Your voice matters, so remember to speak up for what you believe in.

    Learn More

    Learn More

    1. Ansolabehere, Stephen and Gary King. “Measuring the Consequences of Delegate Selection Rules in Presidential Nominations.” The Journal of Politics, vol 52, no 2, May 1990, pp 609-621. Doi: 10.2307/2131908.
    2. Longley, Robert. “How Political Party Convention Delegates are Chosen.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020. Thoughtco.com.
    3. Masket, Seth E. and Heaney, Michael T. and Miller, Joanne M. and Strolovitch, Dara Z. “Networking the Parties: A Comparative Study of Democratic and Republican National Convention Delegates in 2008.” APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, 6 Sept 2009.
    4. Smith, Shephard. “How political conventions have changed over the years.” YouTube, uploaded by Fox News, 20 July 2016. youtube.com/watch?v=haaLqlF3V2k

    Think Further

    Think Further

    1. In how many states do you think Republican delegates are awarded proportionally? Only to the majority winner? By some combination of the two? Explain your reasoning.
    2. Do you think superdelegates normally vote for the candidate who has the most pledged delegates? Explain your reasoning.
    3. The role of the national convention has changed over the years – what are some ways in which you think it will continue to change?

    Teacher Resources

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