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Why It's All About the Delegates on Super Tuesday

Jason Brackins for the Texas Tribune

By now you've probably heard what Super Tuesday means in terms of the delegate count for the presidential nominating contests. There are almost 2,000 delegates up for grabs across 12 states for the two parties today. But how are those special votes divided up in a primary or caucus?

Delegate basics

  • How many delegates do you need to win a Presidential nomination?

Since there are two parties, there are two different systems and two different vote totals. Republicans have 2,340 delegates, with a candidate needing 1,237 to win the nomination.

Democrats have 4,132 total delegates. It takes 2,383 to win the nomination. 

  • How does a candidate win delegates?

As you probably already know, the better a candidate does in the primary and caucus elections, the better they do in the delegate count.

Here's an example from Feb. 1. Ted Cruz won the Iowa Caucuses with 27.6% of the vote. Donald Trump got 24.3 % and Marco Rubio won 23.1 %.

When you translate that election from votes to delegates, Cruz got 8. Trump and Rubio, who were separated by just a couple thousand votes, each got 7 delegates.

Here's where it gets complicated

Statesdivide up their delegates in different ways. "There are 50 states that pick delegates, plus 5 territories. And every one of those jurisdictions have different rules on how to pick their delegates. And there are multiple options," former Texas GOP chairman SteveMunisteri said. 

Plus the parties do it differently from each other, in each state. As for Republicans, the GOP has 155 delegates in Texas. And there are two ways a candidate can win them.

"They have delegates that are selected through the congressional districts," explains UT Austin government professor Daron Shaw.

Texas has 36 districts, with three delegates up for grabs in each. Get 50 percent of the vote in one and you get all three. Get less, and you get two, one, or none.

"The second pot would be delegates chosen, the language here is a little bit unclear, but based on the results of the state-wide primary," Shaw said.

That's 47 delegates. And just like in the congressional districts, get 50 percent of the state-wide vote and you'll take all 47 delegates. If the top vote-getter gets less than 50 percent, the delegates are distributed based on what percentage of the vote each candidates received.

What makes a delegate super?

Democrats do it almost the same way. There's a set number that gets divided up based on the state-wide vote. But instead of congressional districts, Democrats use state Senate districts. And on top of that, Democrats hand out 29 super delegates in Texas.

Wait, what's a super delegate?  Those are elected officials and other party leaders who can pledge their support to anyone, no matter what the voters say.

Even though the election is today, as of this past Sunday more than a dozen Texas super delegates had already announced they would support Hillary Clinton. And that scenario is playing out across the country. So while Clinton has only 25 regular delegates more than Bernie Sanders, she has 430 more Super Delegates.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Ben Philpott covers politics and policy for KUT 90.5 FM. He has been covering state politics and dozens of other topics for the station since 2002. He's been recognized for outstanding radio journalism by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated, the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters and twice by the Houston Press Club as Radio Journalist of the Year. Before moving to Texas, he worked in public radio in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., and at several television stations in Alabama and Tennessee. Born in New York City and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., Philpott graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in broadcast journalism.