When Democratic presidential candidates drop out, what happens to their delegates?

When looking at the DNC rules for delegates, things can get a little hairy

The landscape of Democratic primaries is starting to shift after four major candidates dropped out of the race: Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren.

What will happen to the delegates already earned by candidates no longer in the running?

The nuances of the rules are a bit convoluted, but at the end of the day, most of them will go on to either be assigned to or become able to choose a remaining candidate to support.

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Why do delegates matter?

The way results are announced throughout primary season, it may seem that an individual state is won by a single candidate. In reality, it comes down to a numbers game of winning delegates.

Delegates will be the ones picking the nominee at the Democratic National Convention, which is scheduled July 13-16 in Milwaukee.

To win the nomination, a candidate needs to secure 1,991 delegates.

State or district (or neither)?

Most delegates are pledged, allocated to a certain candidate based on their performance in a given primary. There are 3,979 pledged delegates that are in the process of being doled out to nominees at the state and district levels.

Most district level delegates are "basically locked in," as primaries happen and will be present at the Democratic National Convention, according to Politico.

At the state level, no actual people will be chosen to act as delegates until closer to the convention.

You can track delegates who have already been locked in in real time, as different states go through primaries.

»Election 2020: Delegate tracker

In addition to the pledged delegates come superdelegates. There are 771 of them, but this year they won’t have a say in the DNC vote unless no candidate wins the majority on the first ballot.

"Also known as unpledged delegates or 'automatic' delegates, these are the party bigs — congresspeople, governors, senators and former presidents — who aren't tied to any particular candidates regardless of what happens in their state primaries." — CNN

What’s the threshold to earn a delegate?

Of the four Democratic presidential candidates pictured, only Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders remain in the race. Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg have bowed out.

Credit: Associated Press

icon to expand image

Credit: Associated Press

A candidate needs to meet a 15% threshold in the primary for a given state or within a certain district within a state to get a pledged delegate.

Since more candidates have dropped out, it will become easier to hit the threshold in districts and states going forward into later primaries.

So, what will happen to the dropout’s delegates?

The answer depends on what type of delegate was previously allocated to a certain ex-candidate.

The Democratic National Committee’s rules only say that pledged delegates “shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.”

Experts warn against simply adding the dropout’s delegate numbers to whichever candidate they endorse because delegates are humans who at any point could decide to vote their conscience.

»RELATED: Election 2020: Dates for primaries, caucuses, conventions, debates

For state-level pledges, the votes will be reallocated to the remaining candidates at the DNC.

"If a presidential candidate entitled to an allocation under this rule is no longer a candidate at the time at-large delegates are selected, his/her allocation shall be proportionately divided among the other preferences entitled to an allocation." —DNC delegate selection rulebook

District-level delegates get a bit more flexibility.

"Delegates won based on results in congressional districts become free agents, who can support the candidate of their choice on the first ballot at the Milwaukee convention." — Meg Kinnard, AP

A Politico article gives two examples of how these rules have played out in recent primaries.

In Iowa, Buttigieg narrowly won in a chaotic caucus that took weeks to determine. Iowa has 14 delegates that are currently shown on most delegate tracker maps going to Buttigieg. Later when the delegates are actually chosen, the state-level delegates will be reallocated between the remaining candidates. The district delegates allocated to Buttigieg will be able to vote as they decide.

On this Super Tuesday election results map, you can see that some California districts have Bloomberg represented. According to DNC rules, those delegates will become free agents when it comes to the actual convention because Bloomberg has dropped out.

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A similar story is true in Colorado, where Bloomberg won 19% of the vote, according to CNN's count.

"Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg suspended his campaign, under DNC rules he is no longer eligible to receive statewide delegates. However, he does still receive Congressional District delegates in districts he met threshold." — Colorado Democratic Party

These rules may seem clear as mud, but analysts point out that the fall-through delegates from dropouts may never even matter in the grand scheme of a Democratic nominee.

It all depends on whether a front-running candidate wins 1,991 delegates.

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