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Winning the presidential nomination is all about delegates. But how does the process work?

WASHINGTON (AP) — By now, Americans should be well aware that the process of electing a president isn’t like electing a senator or governor. That’s especially true during the presidential primaries, when the major political parties use a complex and decentralized system to pick their nominees to compete in November.

That complicated process was highlighted in the nomination plans released Tuesday evening by the Republican National Committee, which lays out numerous ways in which states will assign the delegates that a candidate must accumulate to win the party’s nod to become its presidential candidate in 2024.

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Although voters across the country cast ballots for their preferred presidential candidate during the presidential primary season, it’s actually the delegates to the national party conventions who select the presidential nominees for each major party. Much like in the general election, where a candidate needs a majority of votes in the Electoral College to win the White House, in the primaries, candidates need a majority of delegate votes at the convention to win the party’s presidential nomination. Winning the popular vote in a primary or caucus may give a candidate bragging rights and media attention, but it’s the candidate who accumulates a majority of delegates who ultimately advances to the general election.

Here are the basics about the delegate selection process that you should know as the primary campaign gets underway in less than seven weeks:

What is a delegate?

In the context of presidential elections, delegates are individuals who represent their state or community at their party’s presidential nominating convention. These delegates choose a presidential candidate to represent the national party in the November general election. They also approve the party’s platform and adopt rules governing the party. Delegates tend to be party insiders or activists or early supporters of a particular presidential candidate.

How many delegates are there?

Both the Democratic and Republican national conventions will feature thousands of delegates representing all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and several U.S. territories. Democrats will have about 3,900 voting delegates for the first ballot at the convention, and more than 4,600 for subsequent rounds of voting, if necessary. Republicans will have 2,429 delegates voting at the convention.

What kinds of delegates are there?

Delegates can be divided into two broad categories: pledged and unpledged, as Democrats call them, or bound and unbound, as Republicans call them.

Pledged and bound delegates must vote for a particular presidential candidate at the convention based on the results of the primary or caucus in their state. These are the delegates who are up for grabs on any given primary or caucus night. The requirement to vote for a specific candidate lasts at least through the first round of voting at the convention, but depending on state and party rules, some pledged and bound delegates become free to vote for any candidate on subsequent rounds of voting.

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Pledged and bound delegates can be further divided into at-large delegates and district delegates. At-large delegates represent the entire state, while district delegates represent specific districts within the state, usually congressional districts but sometimes state legislative districts. Democrats have an additional type of pledged delegate that Republicans do not: party leaders and elected officials, or PLEOs. These tend to be notable local elected and party officials, though not governors or members of the U.S. Senate or House.

Unpledged and unbound delegates may support any presidential candidate regardless of the primary or caucus results in their state or local district. On the Democratic side, unpledged delegates may not vote on the first ballot in a closely contested race but are free to vote for any candidate in subsequent rounds of voting. Democrats adopted this rule after the 2016 election in order to limit the power of unpledged delegates, formerly known as “superdelegates.” All Democratic governors, U.S. senators and representatives, current and former Democratic National Committee chairs and former presidents serve as unpledged delegates.

For Republicans, delegates from Guam, Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota will be unbound and free to vote for the candidate of their choice, according to the plans released Tuesday.

How does a candidate ‘win’ delegates?

Candidates win delegates in a state based on their performance in an election or some type of presidential preference event, usually a primary or a caucus. But the two major parties have vastly different approaches in determining exactly how delegates are allocated to candidates.

How do Republicans allocate delegates?

For Republicans, state parties are mostly free to determine how to award delegates to presidential candidates, although the RNC does establish some guidelines and restrictions. The most common delegate allocation methods are:

  • Proportional: Candidates are awarded delegates in proportion to the share of the vote they receive in the primary or caucus. There are many variations of proportional allocation methods. Some states allocate all their delegates in proportion to the statewide vote. Others allocate just their statewide delegates according to the statewide vote and their district delegates according to the vote in each district. Many states require that candidates meet a certain vote threshold at either the statewide or district level to qualify for any delegates. Under RNC rules, states holding contests before March 15 must use a proportional allocation method, and can use a threshold of no more than 20 percent of the vote for a candidate to qualify for delegates.
  • Winner-take-all: The candidate who receives the most votes in a primary or caucus wins every delegate at stake in that contest. Only contests held March 15 or later may allocate delegates on a winner-take-all basis.
  • Hybrid: Some states allocate delegates using a mix of proportional and winner-take-all methods. A common combination is majority-take-all, in which statewide delegates are awarded proportionally, though one candidate can win them all if they get more than 50 percent of the vote. Congressional district delegates would be awarded the same way, based on results in each individual district. Those combinations are allowed for the states that are otherwise required to allocate their delegates proportionally.
  • Direct election of delegates: Under this method, delegates are elected directly by voters.

How do Democrats allocate delegates?

Unlike Republicans, Democrats have a standardized rule that all state parties must observe. Candidates win at-large and PLEO delegates in proportion to their share of the statewide vote. They also win district delegates in proportion to their share of the vote in each congressional district. Candidates must receive at least 15 percent of the statewide vote to qualify for any statewide delegates and at least 15 percent of votes in a congressional district to qualify for delegates in that district.

When will the first delegates be allocated?

The Republican delegate selection process will begin with the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 23. Nevada and South Carolina will hold delegate contests in February. According to party rules, the Democratic delegate selection process will begin with the South Carolina primary on Feb. 3, with Nevada and Michigan holding contests later that month. New Hampshire is holding a Democratic primary on Jan. 23 in violation of DNC rules, and the DNC has not yet said whether and how that will impact the state’s delegate allotment. The bulk of Democratic and Republican contests will be held between March and June.