The Path to the Presidency: What’s a convention? What’s a delegate?
March 22, 2012
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
If you watch television news or keep up with the headlines online, it’s difficult to miss the presidential primary elections. Every day there’s an update: results from another debate, a campaign speech, one candidate dropping in the polls while another takes the lead. Presidential primaries are the elections and caucuses held in each state to choose delegates to party conventions. There is a lot to keep track of. In this series, we’ll explore the presidential primaries, from the roots of party politics to the process of nominating a candidate.
The 2012 Republican presidential nomination race has been close, with candidates taking turns in the lead . With his victory in the Illinois primary election this week, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has solidified his lead in delegates. But his rivals, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, aren’t ready to drop out. This has left analysts speculating that the nomination may go to “a brokered convention.”
What does that mean? What’s a brokered convention? What happens at a convention? Who’s a delegate?
Typically, once primary elections wrap up, political parties look ahead to their nominating conventions at the end of summer. These are large-scale gatherings – big parties for each party - where representatives known as delegates take up the baton from the primaries. This year, the Republican National Convention takes place during the last week of August in Tampa, Fla., while the Democratic National Convention takes place the first week of September in Charlotte, N.C. The delegates cast the votes that actually decide who will lead their party’s ticket, either Republican or Democrat.
That vote you cast in your local presidential primary or caucus? It didn’t just decide which candidate your party supports locally. It also decided which delegates will be sent to the national convention – since each candidate has delegates committed to him or her.
However, there are two kinds of delegates. Most delegates are pledged, meaning they agreed to cast their vote at the convention based on the results of the primary election in their state. Some states, such as New York, operate on a “winner-take-all” basis in which the candidate who gets the majority of votes in the primary receives all the state’s delegates.
Other states, such as Pennsylvania, divide up their delegates to reflect the breakdown of the popular vote. Say, for example, your state had 100 delegates: Candidate A received 56 percent of the vote, candidate B received 44 percent. In that situation, candidate A would earn the votes of 56 of the delegates, while candidate B would earn the 44 others.
The other kind of delegate, unpledged, is sometimes referred to as a “superdelegate” by the Democratic Party (they are simply called “unpledged delegates” by the Republican Party). These are delegates who can vote for whomever they choose, rather than voting based on the outcome of their state’s primary. These unpledged delegates are often high-ranking members of their political parties – former members of Congress, former governors and former presidents – whose status earns them more say in the process.
So, once these different types of delegates have arrived at the convention, what happens?
Both parties set a “magic number” of delegates whose support a candidate must have in order to be declared the nominee. If a candidate collects more than half of the delegates before the end of the primary election season, that candidate is considered the winner. This is usually what happens – the party knows who its candidate is going to be beforehand, and the nomination process is just a formality.
But if a primary season wraps up and there’s no clear winner – which could possibly be the situation this year - the nomination “goes to convention.” This is what people are talking about when they say “brokered convention” - the votes at the convention actually do count, and the role of the unpledged delegates is more vital, since they’re essentially wild cards who could steer the nomination one way or another.
What do you think?
What do you think of the process of nominating a presidential candidate? Do you think the roles of party delegates and superdelegates are fair? Would you change them?
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