Primary Colors, Brighter than Usual? Delegates, superdelegates, penalized states with half their delegates — or none. This year's political primaries are putting renewed focus on the delegate system, but what does it all mean? Political scientist David Rohde clarifies.
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Primary Colors, Brighter than Usual?

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Primary Colors, Brighter than Usual?

Primary Colors, Brighter than Usual?

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Super Tuesday is just a few days away. Forty-one percent of Republican delegates and 52 percent of Democratic delegates are at stake. In a tight race every delegate counts, but each party has different rules for choosing delegates and those rules vary from state to state. Complicating matters even further this year is the fact that Florida and Michigan scheduled early primaries in violation of both the Democratic and Republican Party rules. The Democratic Party says it won't seat delegates from either state. The Republican Party is more lenient in its punishment. It's seating 50 percent of the delegates from Michigan and Florida. Meanwhile, John Edwards dropped out of the race yesterday without endorsing any candidate, and Rudy Giuliani ended his campaign with an endorsement of John McCain. We're going to talk about the primary system, how delegates are chosen and what part they play in choosing their party's nominee.

My guest David Rohde is a professor of political science at Duke University. He's written extensively about the political process.

So now that Edwards has dropped out of the race, what options do his delegates have?

DAVID ROHDE: They're essentially free agents. They can support either of the remaining major candidates or they can wait.

GROSS: And are they obliged at all to follow his lead?

ROHDE: No, not at all. They become essentially uncommitted delegates now, but Edwards has very few delegates and we're not down to two candidates, so the possibility that this is going to go all the way to the convention becomes very, very slim; and so it is likely that either in the wake of Super Tuesday or within the next month, we're likely to have an outcome and therefore Edwards--either his recommendations or his delegates aren't likely to have a lot of influence.

GROSS: Now, now, let's look at Giuliani. He's dropped out. He's supporting John McCain, so his delegates aren't obliged to support McCain. How do you think his dropping out affects how the primary will shape up for Republicans?

ROHDE: His departure has a somewhat different dynamic than the Democratic race because we are not yet down to two candidates. One might say we're down to two and a half now, with Huckabee being a half candidate, and Giuliani's departure no longer divides the moderate vote in the Republican Party, but Huckabee still being in divides the conservative vote. So it's--Giuliani's departure is a bigger advantage for McCain than Edwards' departure is for either of the Democratic candidates.

GROSS: Now experts have been saying that it's mathematically impossible that Super Tuesday would be decisive in choosing the Democratic or Republican nominee. Does that change at all with Giuliani and Edwards dropping out?

ROHDE: That statement was true and remains true in the largely irrelevant sense that no candidate will have a majority of the number of delegates to the entire conventions, in the Democratic case something over 2,000. But that's not what these events do. The events set the stage for what will obviously follow. And so if one candidate wins decisively on Super Tuesday, that candidate will be the Democratic nominee whether or not they have a mathematical majority of the delegates or not.

GROSS: How did Super Tuesday get started?

ROHDE: It's the consequence of a whole series of events. Before 1972, the nomination process in both parties were dominated by party organizations and what are generally pejoratively called "party bosses," leaders of state level and local organizations who--candidates appealed to them for support, and then the combination of their decisions determined who would win nominations. In the wake of the Democratic Convention of 1968, the riots in Chicago and things like that, the process moved to put more influence in the hands of rank-and-file voters. That shifted the process in favor of primaries; the number of primaries tripled in the wake of that decision. And so it was when the number of primaries proliferated that the tradition of Super Tuesday came to the forefront.

GROSS: Were there states that didn't have primaries?

ROHDE: Well before 1972, three-quarters of the states didn't have primaries. They had caucuses and party conventions where delegates were selected, so relatively narrow and low-level public participation. There were a handful of very prominent primaries, of course, New Hampshire being the best known. New Hampshire was first, ever since they first held the primary in 1920. And so primaries were a potentially consequential but comparatively minor influence on the nomination process.

GROSS: Florida and Michigan jumped ahead in the primary schedule this year against their party's wishes and their parties are penalizing them. The Democrats say that they won't seat any of the Democratic delegates from those states and the Republicans are seating only 50 percent of the delegates that would have gone to the convention. Has this ever happened before that states were penalized for leapfrogging ahead?

ROHDE: No, not like this. Both parties tried to institute some controls this time in order to mitigate the front loading that was going on, so the effort is a recent event and therefore the penalties are a recent event.

GROSS: What are some of the consequences that these Democratic and Republican decisions might have about Michigan and Florida delegates. For example, if the primary races remain very close, then say the Democrats could decide, `Well, we're going to allow Michigan and Florida to be counted after all.' And that might be a decisive factor. Or the Republicans might decide, `We're going to allow that other 50 percent of delegates from Michigan and Florida to be seated and that could decisive.' And it could be seen almost as if the party would be fixing it at that point to have the outcome that they wanted, depending on how they treat Michigan and Florida.

ROHDE: What you describe could indeed happen, although I think it's extraordinarily unlikely that races will remain close. I think we will have nominees. But the convention is a judge of its own membership so there often in the past have been disagreements about what set of delegates should be seated. This was especially true in the days when caucuses and conventions dominated. And so there would be competing delegations determined at a convention, and then they would in effect appeal that decision to the national convention. So, yes, if things aren't determined--let's say, based on what happened in the Florida primary, the Clinton forces could argue that they should receive the lion's share of delegates from Florida and that those delegates should be seated at the convention, and the convention will make a judgement on that. I think it's very likely that the convention is going to end up seating delegates from Michigan and Florida, but that will mainly be because their decisions won't influence the outcome.

GROSS: And you think that if their decisions would influence the outcome, they'd be less likely to be seated?

ROHDE: Well, there'd be a fight over--a big fight over whether they should be seated or not.

GROSS: Why isn't there a consistent way of choosing delegates state by state, and there's no consistency between the two parties either. Republicans have their way, Democrats have their way. And so it seems as if people's votes are uneven. People have a different amount of voting power depending on where they live and what party they belong to.

ROHDE: Right. This is mainly a consequence of the federal system and history, so the convention system goes back to 1832. And so since the federal system left regulation of most things dealing with elections during the 1800s and 1900s to the states, at the state level, each of the states made their own decisions about what was the best way to do things, and that has largely been maintained up to the present day. As I described earlier, since the 1970s the national organizations, the national convention, has imposed some restrictions on the states, so there's a window during which things have to take place, and there's a proliferation of primaries and things like that; but these are still mostly decisions made at the state level. And therefore, since you have 51--counting the District of Columbia--51 entities within each party, you get a wide variety of decisions.

GROSS: Why don't you run through some of the differences between, state by state and between the two parties in terms of how delegates are chosen?

ROHDE: Sure. I'll start with the Democrats because given the national reforms that they put in in 1972, there's more similarity across the states there. The Democrats leave to the states the decision about whether or not to have primaries or caucuses. Overwhelmingly the states have chosen to have primaries. There are about, in any given election year, 35 to 40 primaries. The remainder are caucuses. Within each state, a certain number of delegates are allocated statewide; the rest are allocated by congressional district. And within those allocations, that is--to take an example, North Carolina--there'd be a certain number of delegates determined statewide. A candidate would have to win 15 percent of the popular vote statewide to have any share in those delegates. And among the candidates who did get 15 percent or more, the delegates are allocated proportionally to the vote among them. The same thing is done within the state within each congressional district, and each candidate would have to win 15 percent of the vote within the congressional district to have a share of that district's delegates. And among those candidates, they're divided proportionally.

Now you can see that once the number of candidates is winnowed down to two or three with a proportional allocation, really it's important in determining how much strength the candidates are going to have and whether they have a chance to determine the nomination. So if all of the primary results are very close, the delegate totals will be very close. If one candidate dominates the popular vote in the primaries, they're going to dominate the delegates.

GROSS: What about the Republicans?

ROHDE: Well, because the Republicans didn't go through the same reform effort that the Democrats did, there's less of a regularity across the states. So first of all, the Republicans don't use proportional representation for most of their states. A lot of states are determined on a winner-take-all basis, either statewide--as was done in the recent Florida primary--or by congressional district. And so in Super Tuesday that's coming up, both New York and New Jersey are winner-take-all by state, so if one candidate gets even one more popular vote than the other candidate, they get 100 percent of the delegates from that state. California on Super Tuesday is winner-take-all by congressional district, and so within any congressional district a candidate who wins the most votes gets all of the delegates within that district. Then in addition to this, other states have proportional primaries or they have caucuses, some of which are winner take all, some of which are proportional; and again these decisions all reflect choices made by either state governments or party organizations at the state level.

GROSS: My guest is David Rohde, a professor of political science at Duke University.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're talking about the primary process and how delegates are chosen with David Rohde, a professor of political science at Duke University.

Now some delegates are special delegates, and they remain uncommitted. For example, the Democratic Party has superdelegates, and about 20 percent of the delegates at the convention will be superdelegates. What are they?

ROHDE: Superdelegates in the Democratic Party are party officials of one sort or another. That is, they're either members of the Democratic National Committee, or they're office holders, or in a few cases, former office holders. So, for example, Bill Clinton is a super-delegate by virtue of having been president of the United States as a Democrat. So all of the Democratic members of the House, all of the Democratic members of the Senate, all of the Democratic governors, and all the members of the DNC, plus a smattering of former office holders, 796 this time around.

GROSS: What's the rationale behind having about 20 percent of the delegates be these superdelegates?

ROHDE: This is a consequence of the reform effort in the 1970s because one of the things that happened, because delegate choice was put in the hand of the public, was that in some cases party leaders were being left out because they had backed the wrong horse within the state. In 1984, the Democrats decided to put in these superdelegates to make sure that party officials, office holders, would always have an influence, be able to exercise some sort of independent judgement. Again, it hasn't been very consequential since the nominations have been determined very early and therefore they never got around to making any kind of independent judgment.

GROSS: But it's possible we'll get to see the superdelegates in action if it's a tight race?

ROHDE: That's right. It is possible. And in any event they are also an independent force for decision making for other matters that the convention could potentially decide, matters of platform or future part rules and things like that. Those are other judgments that the convention makes.

GROSS: The Republican Party has their version of the superdelegates but there's a much smaller number of people that fit into that category. What's the Republican version?

ROHDE: The Republicans actually have two categories. The strict analogue to superdelegates are the members of the Republican National Committee, around 160 people; and they are, again by virtue of their office, automatically delegates and this is determined at the national level. Also, however, individual states have decided to allocate delegates to uncommitted status, where they also tend to fill these with party officials and office holders, and so there are a number of states where not all of the delegates are determined by the primary or caucus. Some of them are left to exercise an independent judgement. For example, on Super Tuesday, Minnesota and Colorado are two states where a big chunk of the delegates that are allocated to those states are going to be--end up unpledged after the results on Super Tuesday.

GROSS: I think that there are some Democrats who still really wish that Al Gore was the nominee; and some people are wondering, well, if it's really tight and inconclusive, is there any way that Gore could step in. Is there any way that that could possibly happen or are these people ridiculous in even believing in that possibility?

ROHDE: Well, I certainly don't like to call people ridiculous. I think--what I try to do as a political scientist is to distinguish things that are possible from things that are probable. There are a lot of things that are logically possible that are unlikely to occur. Indeed, as I've emphasized, I think it's extraordinarily unlikely that things would actually get to the convention for a decision, but it could happen. And if things aren't determined, to be sure, anybody could announce, say, `I want to be the Democratic nominee for president.' And then the convention would choose.

Some states, either in state law or in party rules try to restrict the choice of delegates and say that they are pledged for two or three ballots or until a candidate releases them or something like that. But the individual delegates at the convention, within the constraints that the possibility of some being legally bound, they can make whatever choice they want. But especially in the Democratic Party, these delegates have been vetted and chosen by the candidates to whom they are pledged, and so they're by and large likely to stay loyal. But if new information became available, if new events occurred, if something happened to lead them to think that they should change their mind, it's possible for the convention to do that. So Al Gore could, you know, the day the convention convenes, announce as a candidate; and if the delegates really wanted to, they could choose him as their nominee.

GROSS: So legally it would be possible to just bypass the whole primary process and announce five minutes before the end. I realize how improbable any of this...

ROHDE: Sure.

GROSS: ...ever is but there's no rules against it.

ROHDE: Well, like I said, there are, In many cases there are rules that bind the delegates, either rules in state law or in state level party rules, but whether those are enforceable or not is a question. Whether they're practically enforceable even if they're enforceable legally. I mean, in any event, enforcement would be done after the fact and that's how the convention would have made its judgment. But like I say, these people are going to the convention committed to candidates and so, except for those like the superdelegates that are determined to make an independent judgment, most of the delegates are going to stick with what they were pledged to do because that's what they want to do in any event.

GROSS: A lot of people who live in states with big cities--and I'd include New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California--are very frustrated that the early primaries are in states that don't have cities comparable to that, and they feel that the early momentum is geared towards small towns and suburbs as opposed to people in big cities. Is it being done that way for a reason? Is that intentional?

ROHDE: I think it has been done for a reason and I think it is intentional, and the reason is to maintain the possibility that somebody who is not very widely known at the beginning of the process--a senator or a governor from a smaller state, somebody who is relatively new on the national scene--that those people are given an opportunity to make their case to the American people and show that they have support that they can then build on. And I think that actually the current process does work that way, especially this year. That people who produce surprise victories in early events, like Iowa and New Hampshire, are brought to the attention of the nation, but they don't automatically have success because of that. I mean, Huckabee is a good example this time around. That nationally almost no one had heard of Huckabee. His victory in Iowa catapulted him to attention. He moved up in the polls, but now he's started to trail off;, but at least the national front-runner wasn't automatically the winner. And I would note that in the Republican Party that was Rudy Giuliani, who was, for a long time, the national front-runner and is now not a candidate at all.

GROSS: Well, David Rohde, thank you very much for talking with us.

ROHDE: Oh, it's been a great pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: David Rhode is a professor of political science at Duke University.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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