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On Super Tuesday, Dems can gain delegates without winning a primary

This week's Super Tuesday will include results from 14 states and one U.S. territory. In all, 1,357 delegates are at stake. But Democrats do not have winner-take-all rules, so presidential candidates can gain a fair number of delegates without actually “winning” a primary at all. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield explains.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Super Tuesday is going to come down to one major factor for the democratic presidential contenders: delegates. And getting those delegates means that candidates have to meet a key threshold to make it to the convention. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield explains.

  • Bernie Sanders:

    "We're bringing people together!"

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    The numbers are staggering: 14 states and one territory from one end of the continent to the other…

  • Elizabeth Warren:

    Hello, Seattle!

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    1,357 delegates at stake…

  • Amy Klobuchar:

    We're gonna show them, and surprise them!

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Millions of voters, tens of millions of advertising dollars.

    But if you're looking for a number that will determine the outcome of Super Tuesday —there's really only one that matters: getting 15 percent of the vote.

    Why? —it's because of the ground rules for how Democrats award delegates in the primaries.

  • Elaine Kamarck:

    Well, they're very significant. And one way to understand this is to compare the Democratic rules and the Republican rules.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    There's no better guide to the way Democrats choose their nominees than Elaine Kamarck; she has been a member of the party's rules committee for more than two decades and literally wrote the book on how Americans nominate presidential candidates.

  • Elaine Kamarck:

    So the Democratic rules tend to favor, not losers, but the second place finishers. Whereas the Republican Party rules tend to be winner-take-all by congressional district.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Democrats do award some delegates to a state's overall winner, but most of the delegates are based on how well they do in individual Congressional districts.

    For comparison, just look at the last campaign. When Donald Trump won the New York Republican primary with 60 percent of the vote, he won 93 percent of the states' delegates. When Clinton won the New York Democratic primary with 58 percent of the vote, she got about 56 percent of the delegates, with Senator Bernie Sanders collecting the rest.

    Because Democrats do not have winner-take-all rules, you can win a fair number of delegates without actually "winning" a primary at all.

    But there's a catch: that 15 percent threshold can also dramatically boost a front-runner in a crowded field:

    Take Senator Sanders and California, with its 415 pledged delegates.

    Polls not only show Sanders with a large statewide lead—they show every other candidate struggling to hit 15 percent.

    If no one else gets above that mark, Sanders would get all of the 144 statewide delegates. That's about a third of all the delegates in the state. If that holds true in many of California's 53 Congressional districts, Sanders would get the lion's share of those remaining delegates as well.

    So it's conceivable that a candidate like Sanders could win a big majority of the delegates, with far less than a majority of voters.

    But the same rules that boost a contender in a crowded field, can also make gaining ground in a narrowed field very hard.

    In the last two contested Democratic primaries – 2008 and 2016 – there were only two major candidates, so getting to that 15 percent threshold wasn't hard at all. But making up serious ground was also nearly impossible with no winner-take-all contests.

    That's what doomed Clinton in her race against Barack Obama in 2008 — and it's what guaranteed her victory over Sanders last time out.

  • Elaine Kamarck:

    She was winning enormous margins in the South. So her delegate lead over Bernie Sanders essentially carried her through the rest of the season. And right on into the convention.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    That's a similar dynamic we could see this year: If Sanders solidifies a significant delegate lead after Super Tuesday… even a winnowed field will have a hard time catching up.