Sunday, June 4, 2023

Sunday Series: Demystifying Delegate Allocation and Delegate Selection

Delegate allocation.

Delegate selection.

Delegates, delegates, delegates.

The 2024 invisible primary is deep in the heart of rules season. Each of the national parties have settled on the rules that will govern their respective presidential nomination processes next year. Well, both parties have mostly done that. The Democratic National Committee still has to finalize which states will receive (or not receive) waivers to conduct primaries or caucuses during the early part of the primary calendar next year. But other than that (not insignificant) detail, the guidelines within which states and state parties can operate for 2024 have been set for some time. And states and state parties have been, are and will continue to make decisions -- when to schedule primaries and caucuses, how to allocate and select delegates, etc. -- as 2023 progresses. 

And those are important decisions that can influence the path a presidential candidate takes in getting to the nomination. But together, all of those rules, the layers of national party guidelines, state laws and state party rules, form a complicated matrix that seems far removed from a voter walking into a polling place and pulling the lever for their preferred presidential candidate. 

For most, those who, like FHQ, grew up or currently reside in a state with a presidential primary, that can seem like the extent of the process. One expresses their presidential preference, some candidate wins the primary and the candidate who wins the most across the country becomes the nominee. More often than not, that is true. However, that description of the process is a vast oversimplification that smooths over many of the complexities that can render that way of understanding things false. 

In truth, what happens every four years is that those votes in primaries and caucuses throughout the United States translate into delegates and it is those delegates who decide at the national convention who a party's presidential nominee is going to be. But that process of votes producing delegates for the various candidates can be shrouded in mystery, or perhaps more appropriately, complexities. 

Many of those complexities owe to the fact that there are two parallel events taking place in that translation of votes to delegates. One of those, delegate allocation, most folks at least vaguely understand. If a candidate wins more votes, they more often than not win more delegates. There are exceptions to that rule, but in the vast majority of cases, the candidate with the most votes in a given state's contest is the candidate who is awarded the most delegates. This is true if the state party rules for delegate allocation are proportional (where if a candidate wins 53 percent of the vote, that candidate wins around 53 percent of the delegates), winner-take-all (where a plurality winner statewide can win all of a state's delegates) or something in between those two.

But as FHQ has often described it, that allocation process is only granting the various candidates delegate slots based on the results of the primaries or caucuses. There is a second process -- delegate selection -- that operates in the background to actually fill those slots. They end up filled with people that go the national conventions aligned with and/or bound to the candidates to whom the slots have been awarded. 

Taylor Swift and National Conventions

Confused yet? 

Yeah, it happens. And FHQ gets asked about this a lot. I can launch into that "Well, the nomination process is one of two parallel processes..." and folks' eyes start to glaze over. There are a lot of layers involved in this process and it quickly gets messy. So let's think about all of this delegate allocation and selection a bit differently. 

Think of a national convention like a Taylor Swift concert. Sure, one's mileage may vary in terms of the entertainment value of those two events, but the convoluted nature of the process to actually get into either event is similarly opaque and complicated. Just as Swifties in the fall of 2022 wanted to get tickets to see the singer/songwriter in concert, candidates want to get as many of their delegates into the national convention (in order to be nominated as the party's standard bearer). But just like those diehard Taylor Swift fans, the various candidates have to compete against other candidates, some with vastly more resources (like ticket resellers buying in bulk), to gain access. 

But both are competing for something similar. Swifties want tickets that reserve a spot for them at the concert. Presidential candidates are vying in primaries and caucuses for delegate slots that reserve spots for their delegates at the convention. That is the delegate allocation process. It is getting tickets to the show. 

Now, suppose you are the parent of two young Swift fans. Ideally, you want three tickets so you and your two kids can see Taylor. Only, because of the process -- ahem, allocation -- you manage to get just two tickets. Who gets those two tickets? You cannot possibly let your two underage kids go alone. Or can you? But how do you choose between the two kids in the scenario that a chaperone is necessary? Do you flip a coin? Do you let them literally battle it out in hand-to-hand combat to see who goes? Do you design some Taylor Swift trivia contest? And assuming your kids are not twins, you have to design a process that levels the playing field for them that does not advantage the older kid. In fact, you probably want to use some system that does not appear to play favorites at all. 

That is the delegate selection process; the rules of deciding (or that decide) who goes. 

And state parties operate within national party guidelines to set the rules for both allocation and selection. They set the rules for 1) how folks get tickets and that 2) decide who gets to go based on how many tickets were acquired. The getting the tickets part is allocation. Those are the proportional and winner-take-all rules mentioned above. All states are proportional in the Democratic process, but there is a mixture of those rules (and various hybrid forms in between) across the states and territories in the Republican system. Voters vote in the primaries and (the first round of) caucuses and that determines how many of the delegate slots -- those tickets to the national convention -- are allocated to the various candidates. Each state has a set number of tickets to allocate based on different formulas across the parties that weigh population (the bigger the state, the more tickets it gets) and partisan voting history (the more Republican a state is, for example, the more tickets it gets to the Republican convention).

But how do state parties decide the actual people that get to go to the concert; those who get the tickets?

Again, that is the delegate selection process. In some states, like Alabama, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Rhode Island, when voters vote in a presidential primary, those voters vote for their presidential preference and also vote for delegate candidates. Those states merge the ticket acquisition portion with the process of deciding who gets to go. To some degree, it is similar in caucus states. Caucus-goers attend their precinct caucuses and collectively their votes determine how many delegate slots are allocated to which candidates and start the process of deciding who gets to go, a process that plays out through county, district and/or state conventions. This is the way things have been for, say, Iowa Democrats in the past and will continue to be the case for Iowa Republicans in 2024. 

Yet, in most cases and in most states, there are two very separate processes: a primary for delegate allocation and a caucus/convention system for delegate selection. The latter is something that almost universally gets missed by casual observers in this whole process. In other words, even in primary states there are caucuses. But they are separate caucuses with separate (or if not completely separate, then a subset of) decision makers from the primaries. It is in those caucuses where that subset of typically very tuned-in partisans begins to decide who gets those tickets, who fills a candidate's allocated slots to the national convention.

Take New Hampshire, a traditional primary state. All one ever hears about is the primary there. It has been first, after all, for more than a century. But delegates are selected in the Granite state before the primary. Slates of delegate candidates are selected for each candidate in pre-primary caucuses and then folks are pulled from those slates to fill slots allocated to the candidate once the results of the primary are in. This is basically the model Iowa Democrats appear to be proposing for their 2024 process and from where some of the recent confusion comes. The state party is abandoning the merged allocation and (start of the) selection processes and is proposing to bifurcate them. The idea is that the traditional caucuses will be held on the same January night that Republicans hold theirs, but the decisions made that night only affect the selection process (who goes to the convention). A separate all-mail preference vote (one that presumably concludes after the initial caucuses) will be what determines the allocation (how many tickets each candidate gets).

In most primary states, however, the selection process in those caucuses follows the primary. But again, they are separate. 

Hijacking who gets tickets

There is one additional layer to all of this that separates the two major parties and how each handles the selection process overall. Think of it as a safeguard that Democrats at the national level have added to their selection process that does not exist in the Republican process. The rules that state parties operate under on the Democratic side give the candidates the right of review over who fills any delegate slots allocated to them. Candidates who have been allocated any delegates have the ability to weed out any delegate candidates who have made it through the selection process and into one of their allocated slots but who are not actually affiliated with or sympathetic to the candidate. To extend the concert analogy, Democratic candidates have some backend control over who gets their tickets.

By comparison, there is no such safeguard on the Republican side. There is no right of review. A candidate may lose a primary but if that candidate has a dedicated enough following at the grassroots level, those supporters may be able to overrun a caucus and/or convention and force through a disproportionate number of delegate candidates. That produces a delegation that may be bound through the allocation process to support a particular candidate but one that is made up of people filling those allocated slots who support someone else. Recall that during the 2016 Republican primaries there was some talk about the possibility that delegate slots allocated to Donald Trump may be filled with people aligned with another candidate. That talk has returned for 2024.

Now sure, that may sound as if it is undemocratic, the idea that one candidate may be able to make an end run around another candidate who has received more votes overall in the primaries and caucuses. But it is (or has been) much easier to speculate about that than it has been for a candidate to actually successfully implement such a strategy across enough states to change the course of the nomination at the convention. But still, the possibility exists that a well-organized campaign can come in and hijack the decision on who gets a ticket to the national convention. 


Obviously there is more to it all than this. There are maybe more layers that make the Taylor Swift concert ticket analogy work better in some facets of the delegate allocation/selection process than others. But complicated though all of this may be, it helps to think of allocation like getting tickets to the national convention and selection as deciding who gets to use those tickets and actually go to Chicago or Milwaukee in 2024. The rules governing each process may be stretched beyond this simple example, but for the most part this is basically how it works. 


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