Why is 15% important to Democrats? We explain the delegate system.

Posted March 3, 2020 4:42 p.m. EST
Updated March 3, 2020 4:43 p.m. EST

As election results roll in from Super Tuesday — the mammoth primary day when votes are cast in 14 states, one U.S. territory, and Democrats overseas — expect to hear one particular number come up again and again:


Why is that such an important figure? Because it’s the threshold that determines whether a candidate takes home delegates. And delegates, rather than votes, are the building blocks for winning the Democratic nomination.

It works like this: Any candidate who receives at least 15% of the vote in a state’s primary or caucuses, either statewide or at the congressional district level, will receive delegates. Anyone who falls short of 15% statewide or in a congressional district gets nothing.

The delegates are distributed proportionally among those who reach the 15% threshold, based on votes received.

Strategically, this means that if several candidates remain in the race but fall short of the 15% threshold, it enlarges the delegate haul for the candidates above 15%.

Bernie Sanders, for example — the winner of the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada caucuses, and a close second in the Iowa caucuses — has already benefited disproportionately in delegate allotments. In Iowa, Sanders won 26% of the vote but got 30% of the delegates; in New Hampshire, he won 26% of the vote but got 38% of the delegates; and in Nevada, he won 47% of the vote but secured 67% of the delegates.

And in South Carolina, Joe Biden won 48% of the votes but secured 72% of the delegates. Aside from Biden, only Sanders broke the 15% barrier, with just shy of 20% of the votes.

Going forward, a candidate with a solid base of supporters, like Sanders, is well positioned to collect some delegates in almost every contest.

The good news for Biden in the wake of his South Carolina victory is that two of his rivals for moderate votes — Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar — dropped out.

Their departure from the field means that Biden has a shot at consolidating voters who don’t favor Sanders. Of course, some Buttigieg or Klobuchar backers may decide to migrate to Sanders, or one of the other remaining candidates in the race, such as Elizabeth Warren or Mike Bloomberg.

Still, all things being equal, Biden benefits from rivals for moderate voters dropping out of the race.

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