Republican presidential nomination and delegates, explained

Winning individual primaries and caucuses is just one step in the long path to winning a party’s presidential nomination.

Both parties hold conventions in the summer where delegates technically select the nominee. The process and rules are different for each party, but the primaries are about winning enough delegates to secure the nomination.

For the GOP, former President Donald Trump has a strong early lead after winning the most delegates in the first contest, the Iowa caucuses, and the second, the New Hampshire primary.

The race is not over in this regard. There are different kinds of nominating contests and different kinds of delegates in a calendar that stretches from January to June, so keeping track of the delegate math can get complicated. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will ultimately need to find a way to start winning contests if she’s going to eat into Trump’s growing delegate lead.

Performing well in primaries and caucuses equals delegates, and the larger goal is amassing the magic number of delegates to secure a nomination before delegate voting at the party convention.

Winning the GOP nomination requires at least 1,215 out of 2,429 delegates awarded as part of the primary process. Shortly after CNN projected that Trump would win New Hampshire, Trump had 32 delegates compared with Haley’s 17.

In years without an incumbent, like Republicans are experiencing in 2024, the winner frequently does not hit the magic number until May or even June. In 2016, in his first of three White House runs, Trump hit the magic number on May 26.

During most of the early primaries and caucuses, states award delegates proportionally. That means that each candidate gets a number of delegates roughly equivalent to the percentage of the vote he or she has won. Delegates can be awarded based on results either statewide or in individual congressional districts.

For example, in 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses, but with less than 30% of the vote, he only got eight delegates. Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio both got seven delegates in Iowa that year.

Sometimes, there’s a certain amount of support a candidate must register to qualify for delegates, and many of these states have special rules that allow a candidate who wins the lion’s share of the vote (often 50%) to take all of the state’s delegates.

Things change after March 15. That’s when states have the option to award all of their delegates to whoever gets the most votes in the state’s contest.

The introduction of winner-take-all rules makes it harder for any remaining candidates to accumulate delegates against the race leader.

While you’re bound to hear a lot about Iowa and New Hampshire, contests that can be critical for giving candidates early momentum, those two states represent a small number of delegates.

It’s not until Super Tuesday on March 5, seven weeks after the first Americans pick a candidate in Iowa, that a consequentially large number of Republican delegates is at stake.

In 13 primaries and three caucuses, 874 delegates, 36% of the Republican total, will be up for grabs, including in California, the state with the most Republican delegates. But we still aren’t even halfway through the primaries.

Below, explore how many delegates are at stake in every contest.

In addition to delegates who are bound to a candidate based on the results of the nominating contests, there is also a relatively small number of unbound delegates (142 total) from Pennsylvania, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Guam. These delegates are not technically required to support the candidate who won their state at the outset of the convention and are free to support the candidate of their choice.

The delegate math gets even more complicated if no candidate reaches the magic number during the nominating contests, although this hasn’t happened for decades. If there is no clear winner during the primaries, delegates could engage in rounds of voting at the convention to select the party’s presidential candidate.

Short answer: it depends. Different states have different rules. In some states, if a candidate drops out and releases their delegates, they become free to support the candidate of their choice.In the case of the delegates Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy won in Iowa, under state party rules, those delegates will remain bound to their candidates until the convention, but if just one name is placed into nomination during the formal roll-call vote, the entire Iowa delegation votes for that candidate.

While President Joe Biden has not faced much opposition in the Democratic primary, he still needs to win at least 1,968 of 3,934 pledged delegates awarded as part of the primary process. If he can’t get a majority, he’d need help from about 740 automatic delegates, made up of party leaders, elected officials and other Democratic bigwigs.

Note: Democrats aren’t even technically starting to count delegates until their South Carolina primary in early February. Republicans are voting in the South Carolina primary in late February.

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