Do Delegates Have Free Will?

Last Thursday, Bill Bradley withdrew from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Republican John McCain announced that he was “suspending” his campaign. Bradley said he would not release his delegates to the Democratic nominating convention. Similarly, news reports suggested that McCain used the term “suspending”–as opposed to “withdrawing”–in order to retain control of the delegates he has won so far. How do the candidates keep control of their delegates?

The two national parties set the rules for the selection and responsibilities of their delegates. (All states have their own laws regarding delegates, but in recent decades the U.S. Supreme Court has struck them down, ruling that the parties can set the policies.) Democrats dictate their policy from the top down: All delegates are pledged, but not bound, to reflect the conscience of the candidate they were chosen to represent. The Republican Party, on the other hand, relies heavily on its organization in each state to set the rules regarding its delegates. A handful of state parties give delegates complete autonomy to vote at the convention for whomever they chose. Others require that the delegates vote for their candidate until the candidate releases them from that obligation.

On the Republican side, McCain will have considerable leverage at his party’s convention, because he’ll have at least six delegations obligated to remain in his corner. He would lose the support of these delegations only by officially releasing them, not by withdrawing from the race. (McCain delegates from a seventh state–New Hampshire–would be released if he did withdraw.) Under GOP rules, six delegations are needed to pass a motion that would allow McCain to bring a special amendment to the convention floor for consideration by the entire Republican Party–not to mention the audience watching at home. (Note to Bush: Incorporate campaign-finance reform into party platform in advance.) McCain will also have enough support to be officially nominated for president at the convention.

Bill Bradley may say he is retaining his delegates, but in the Democratic Party an official withdrawal severely weakens a candidate’s power at the convention. Since he has withdrawn, Bradley will not be able to appoint supporters to the all-important convention committees, which determine the rules and the platform for the convention.

In addition, he will lose a significant number of the delegates already placed in his column by news organizations. In the Democratic primary process, one group of delegates from every state–the at-large delegates–is officially allocated late in the primary season. If a candidate drops out of the race, party rules dictate that his at-large delegates are to be distributed among the remaining candidates. In New York, for example, MSNBC News reported that Bradley earned 87 delegates. At the convention, this number will drop to roughly 70.

As a result, Democratic candidates, unlike their Republican counterparts, have a real incentive to “suspend” their campaigns, as opposed to ending them. In recent history, a number of Democrats have chosen to suspend their presidential candidacies, including Al Gore in 1988. By contrast, only one other Republican in recent memory has chosen to suspend a campaign that made it into the primaries: John McCain’s new nemesis Pat Robertson, in 1988.

News reports have also suggested that McCain may have suspended his campaign in order to remain eligible for additional federal matching funds. In order to receive funds for an active candidacy, however, McCain would have to continue campaigning in at least one state. Later this month, the Federal Election Commission is likely to rule that McCain’s announcement last Thursday was a de facto withdrawal. Accordingly, he will be eligible for the same funds that are available to Bradley and any other major candidate who withdraws: money to help retire his campaign’s debt and close his campaign’s offices.

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Explainer thanksSlatereader Dan Dupont for suggesting the question and Professor Bill Mayer of Northeastern University for helping to answer it.