Dividing Up Delegates

Why did Obama get as many as Clinton in New Hampshire, when he finished in second place?

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

Sen. Hillary Clinton picked up nine delegates after winning Tuesday’s New Hampshire Democratic primary by almost 8,000 votes. Sen. Barack Obama, who finished in second place, also earned nine delegates. Wait a second—since Clinton won, how come she didn’t get more delegates?

Rounding and remainders. Democratic presidential candidates gain delegates in each state as long as they capture at least 15 percent of the votes, and they’re awarded delegates in proportion to the amount of votes they receive in each district and statewide. New Hampshire had 22 delegates up for grabs this week. Clinton, who received 39 percent of the vote, got 39 percent of the delegates. Obama, who won 37 percent of the vote, got 37 percent of the delegates. That rounds down to eight delegates each. John Edwards, who just made the cutoff with 17 percent of the vote, received three delegates. This leaves three extra delegates, who are then allocated to the three candidates in turn.

Republican primaries don’t have the same rules. Each state can decide how to award its delegates. The most common systems include winner-take-all, proportional division like the Democrats’, or some combination of the two. In New Hampshire, the 12 delegates are handed out proportionally to each candidate who receives more than 10 percent of the votes. In Florida, the overall winner gets all 57 delegates. *

Since a number of states have winner-take-all policies, GOP candidates can rack up delegates faster than their Democratic rivals. This means a presidential nominee will likely emerge earlier in the GOP, all else being equal. Presidential hopefuls in the Democratic Party might want to duke it out in every state, since there’s always a possibility of picking up delegates. But Republican candidates, who might get no reward for coming in second or third, may prefer to concentrate on big winner-take-all states. That partly explains why Rudy Giuliani skimped on New Hampshire to campaign heavily in states like Florida and California.

Today’s system for picking delegates didn’t emerge until the last few decades. For much of the 20th century, delegates were selected through a mix of state primaries, caucuses, and internal party decisions. Then, in 1968, Hubert Humphrey won the presidential nomination over Eugene McCarthy even though McCarthy had received the largest share of votes in the primaries. * A huge outcry followed, and eventually a commission led by George McGovern established rules calling for Democratic delegates to be selected in open primaries. The Republican Party later adopted similar rules.

The rules changed again after Jesse Jackson charged in 1988 that he would have won more delegates if the party had divvied up delegates in proportion to the votes he received. In 1992, the Democratic Party instituted rules for proportional distribution of delegates in all states.

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Explainer thanks Christopher Hull and Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University, Allan Lichtman of American University, and William Mayer of Northeastern University.

Corrections, Jan. 10, 2008: The original article incorrectly said that Hubert Humphrey won the 1968 presidential nomination over George McGovern; he won over Eugene McCarthy. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also incorrectly said that Florida’s overall winner would get 10 delegates automatically, and winners of congressional districts could also pick up delegates. After the Republican National Committee imposed a penalty on Florida for moving up its primary date, the state decided that all remaining 57 delegates will go to the winner of the state primary. (Return to the corrected sentence.)