You’re about to start hearing a lot about the delegate count. Here’s how it works

Delegates reacted as then-Senator Hillary Clinton asked the convention to nominate then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008.
Delegates reacted as then-Senator Hillary Clinton asked the convention to nominate then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008.DAMON WINTER/NYT

Now that the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have come and gone, doing their part to winnow the large Democratic presidential primary field, it’s time to start counting delegates.

Because no single candidate emerged in the last two weeks as the overwhelming front-runner, it’s become more likely we’ll see a drawn-out battle for every last delegate. So here’s a look at how the delegate math works, and what happens if no candidate wins a majority.

In simple terms, how does the process work?

The system for choosing a party nominee to run for president is not the same as the system for the general election. Rather than one nationwide election day, each state holds either a primary or caucuses over a period of several months, and the winning candidates are awarded delegates who will represent them at the party’s nominating convention. To win the Democratic presidential nomination, a candidate must win a majority of the delegates’ votes at the Democratic National Convention in July.

But here’s where it gets more complicated


Back to those primary contests. Unlike the general election, where the winner of a state is awarded all of that state’s electoral votes, each state’s Democratic Party awards delegates proportionally to the candidates, according to how they perform in the election. Candidates who fail to reach 15 percent of the vote don’t get any delegates.

That means that while Senator Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary, because he won by such a slim margin, he’s only expected to receive one more delegate than runner-up former mayor Pete Buttigieg. Unsurprisingly, that makes for a drawn out process. As long as a candidate gets 15 percent of the vote in a given state, they have a chance of coming away with at least some delegates, and they can stay in the race.


With a total of 3,979 delegates up for grabs, one candidate must win at least 1,991 delegates in order to secure the nomination on the first ballot at the convention.

What about superdelegates?

In addition to the 3,979 delegates pledged to candidates based on how they do in primaries and caucuses, there are another approximately 770 superdelegates who are allowed to back whichever candidate they want. They are Democratic governors and members of Congress, along with DNC members and some other party insiders.

Normally, those superdelegates can help swing the nomination to candidate who has a lead, but not a majority of pledged delegates. But this year, thanks to changes made after complaints from Bernie Sanders and his supporters that the 2016 nominating process was tilted against his upstart candidacy, those superdelegates have lost a lot of power.

A rule change prevents them from voting on the first ballot in a convention where the nomination is contested. So if no candidate secures a majority on the first ballot, that’s when those 770 superdelegates come into play. Some DNC members reportedly want to reverse the rule change and allow superdelegates to vote on a crucial first ballot if no Democratic candidate has secured a majority of pledged delegates heading into the convention.

What if no candidate wins a majority of pledged delegates before the convention?

If all states vote and no single candidate has amassed 1,991 delegates to secure the nomination on the first ballot at the Milwaukee convention, the party enters what’s called a brokered convention. In that case, all pledged delegates are released from their obligations to the candidate they were sent to represent, and the party’s superdelegates can also weigh in. The convention would then hold a second round of voting, and hope that one candidate can win a majority of votes and thus the nomination.


What does the delegate picture look like right now?

After first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, 64 pledged delegates have been allocated, according to AP estimates. The breakdown is as follows: Buttigieg with 22, Sanders with 21, Senator Elizabeth Warren with 8, Senator Amy Klobuchar with 7, and former vice president Joe Biden with 6.

Next up is Nevada on Feb. 22nd which will award 36 pledged delegates, followed by South Carolina on Feb. 29th, which will award 54 delegates. Then comes Super Tuesday on March 3rd, where a huge cache of more than 1,300 delegates will be awarded as voters in 14 states caucus or go to the polls.

Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.