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Road to the White House Is Paved with Delegates

By Bridget Hunter | Staff Writer | 01 November 2011
President Obama greeting crowd (AP Images)

President Obama, shown greeting a crowd in Emporia, Virginia, October 18, is unlikely to face a serious challenge for the 2012 Democratic presidential nomination.

Washington — On November 6, 2012, Americans will go to the polls to cast their ballots for the man (or woman) who will serve as U.S. president for the following four years, but first they must select delegates who will vote at national conventions to determine which candidates appear on those ballots.

The road to the White House seems to lengthen with each successive election cycle. For months, prospective candidates have been testing the waters with exploratory committees, fundraising events and tours of states holding early primaries.

Achieving the U.S. presidency almost certainly will involve first winning the nomination of one of the country’s major political parties by securing the votes of a majority of the delegates attending a national convention.

So-called “third party” candidates — those not affiliated with either the Democratic or the Republican party — could affect the outcome of the race by depriving the major candidates of votes, but, based on U.S. history, are unlikely to be elected themselves.

Democratic and Republican parties set their own rules for selecting delegates and for allocating votes among participating jurisdictions.


Democratic delegates will be a combination of pledged (selected in primaries and caucuses to support a specific candidate) and unpledged delegates (Democratic National Committee members, Democratic governors and Democratic members of Congress serving at the time of the convention). Party officials anticipate credentialing 5,543 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, to be held in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the week of September 3, 2012.

In 2012, the number of Democratic delegates attending and how they qualify probably will not matter much. Because incumbency (already holding the office you seek) is such an advantage in any U.S. campaign, it is unlikely that President Obama will face any serious challenge within his party.

For the 2012 U.S. elections, the big question is which Republican will run against him. As of October 31, 16 Republicans have announced they intend to run, and it is still possible others could jump into the race.

Republican delegate counts are determined by state (or equivalent) party rules, based on The Rules of the Republican Party adopted by the Republican National Committee September 1, 2008:

Jurisdictions with constitutionally elected members of Congress have 10 at-large delegates from each state (five at-large delegates for each U.S. senator) and three district delegates for each U.S. representative. For jurisdictions without constitutionally elected members of Congress, delegates are allocated as follows:

• Six at-large delegates each from American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
• 16 at-large delegates from the District of Columbia.
• 20 at-large delegates from Puerto Rico.

Each jurisdiction also is allowed as delegates three party leaders, the national committee man and woman for that jurisdiction, and the chairman of the state Republican Party.

In addition, Republicans have a complicated formula for awarding “bonus delegates” based on the outcomes of federal and state elections held between January 2006 and December 2011. Essentially, state delegations are rewarded for electing Republicans in recent elections.

As of October 31, states and territories are allowed 2,284 delegates at the Republican National Convention, scheduled for the week of August 27, 2012, in Tampa, Florida. Between now and then, Republican presidential candidates will compete for delegate support.


Another Republican Party rule sets the calendar for delegate selection. State parties must not begin selecting their national convention delegates before February 1, 2012, in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada; and before March 6, 2012, in all other jurisdictions. Any jurisdiction that violates that rule forfeits half its delegates.

For 2012, some states have decided to accept that penalty and hold early primaries in an attempt to increase the influence their voters will have in determining the candidates. Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire and South Carolina have announced they will hold early primaries. Two U.S. territories — the Northern Marianna Islands and Puerto Rico — also are considering selecting their delegates earlier than allowed under party rules.

Florida threw the election calendar into disarray by scheduling its primary for January 31. Nevada considered a similar move (to January 14, 2012) but, under pressure and amid threats of candidates boycotting the state, the Nevada Republican Party scheduled its caucuses for February 4, 2012.

The January 14 date could have forced New Hampshire to shift its primary into early or mid-December in order to save its first-in-the-nation primary status, according to a letter released by New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner. That would have marked the first time a primary was held in the year prior to election year.

In 21st-century presidential races, state officials of both parties have expressed concern that primaries held late in the election year have less influence that those held early. As some states shift their election calendars earlier to gain influence, other traditionally early states try to select their delegates even earlier to maintain their historical importance.

For candidates, early victories can mean more early financial support. Alternatively, poor showings in early primaries can put candidates who might have strong support in other parts of the country at a disadvantage. Clustering primaries and caucuses very early in the year can make early campaigning very costly and force candidates to make difficult strategic decisions about where they place staff and spend their advertising dollars.

Perhaps ironically, polls show American voters feel campaigning starts much too far in advance of Election Day.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

Republican candidates standing on stage before banner (AP Images)

Some of the Republican contenders for the U.S. presidency assemble before a presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, October 11.