Friday, March 16, 2012

Unbound vs. Unpledged Delegates

FHQ has recently received a fair number of requests from a variety folks to explain the subtle differences between unbound and unpledged delegates in the current Republican nomination race. The short answer is that the two distinctions are often one and the same. FHQ is fond of saying that the delegates emerging from most of the non-binding (straw poll) caucus states are unbound at the end of the process (post-state convention). Similarly, the majority of automatic delegates are unbound.

But some from each group are both unbound and unpledged.

What separates the two?

The first layer of this is to define an unbound delegate relative to a bound delegate. This is pretty easy. Either a delegate selected is bound according to the results of any given primary or caucus or they are not. Now, FHQ has gone into the variety of rules regarding how delegates can be bound, but let's shunt that to the side for this exercise. If a state or state party binds its delegates through a written or verbal oath, then that delegate is locked into a particular candidate through -- in most cases -- the first ballot at the convention based on the results of the primary or caucus.1 Unbound delegates, though, are free to choose -- to pledge their support to -- any candidate they prefer.

The best examples to illustrate this are the automatic delegates. Those three RNC delegates that each state has are unbound according to the RNC rules unless the state party rules bind them. Most states leave the automatic delegates unbound, but some, like Georgia, for instance, bind the automatic delegates to, in their case, the winner of the statewide vote. For our purposes, let's focus on those automatic delegates who are left unbound based on the combination of national and state party rules. If any of those unbound delegates endorse a candidate -- as over 30 automatic delegates have done in endorsing Mitt Romney -- then they are pledging but not necessarily binding themselves to that candidate. There is nothing binding about the action, but the automatic delegate has come out in support of a particular candidate and, truth be told, can change his or her mind at any time before the convention vote(s).

That leaves us with a couple of possible categories of delegates:
  1. Unbound, unpledged delegates: These are the automatic delegates who are not bound as described above and who have not endorsed a candidate. They don't have to be automatic delegates, but these are the only delegates who have qualified for this distinction at this time. The congressional district and at-large delegates in non-binding caucus states have yet to actually be selected yet. Their slots are, I suppose, unbound and unpledged if we are doing the proper accounting here, but the selected/elected delegates at the end of the process will only definitely come out of said process officially unbound, but not necessarily unpledged. There is a reason the Santorum strategy memo emphasized his ability to win over -- the pledges of -- unbound delegates.
  2. Pledged, unbound delegates: These are the automatic delegates who are not bound as described above, but who have endorsed a candidate in the race for the Republican nomination. [See the above caveat on not-yet-selected delegates in non-binding caucus states.]
It is impossible for a delegate to be both bound and unpledged because a bound delegate is by the rules a pledged delegate.

...pledged whether they like or not.

That's why we hear so much about making it through that first ballot from the not-Romney campaigns. If no candidate has the 1144 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination at the convention on the first ballot then a great many of those bound delegates become unbound but not necessarily unpledged delegates.

1 In some states the threshold for releasing delegates from the binding mechanism is greater than one ballot. The majority of states/state parties set the threshold at just one ballot though.

Recent Posts:
On the State of the Republican Nomination Race, Post-AL/MS

2012 Republican Delegate Allocation: Puerto Rico

2012 Republican Delegate Allocation: Hawaii

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