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Here’s what happens to delegates after their candidates drop out

The answer is a little different depending on the type of delegate.

2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren...
2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks to and meets California voters at East Los Angeles College in Los Angeles, California, on Monday March 2, 2020.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

In the past week, the 2020 Democratic field has seen a swift winnowing.

After former Vice President Joe Biden’s landslide win in South Carolina, his fellow moderates — former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — suspended their campaigns in quick succession. Soon after, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren also suspended their campaigns following disappointing Super Tuesday performances.

The sudden slew of suspensions has prompted a big question about the candidates no longer in the race: Where do all their delegates go?

The short answer is that some of these delegates will be reallocated to other candidates while others will be able to serve as “free agents” during the Democratic National Convention later this year.

Because of that, the Warren, Bloomberg, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg delegates could help push someone over the top at the DNC in July — or give a candidate a leg up even earlier.

The two futures for delegates of now-defunct campaigns, briefly explained

The treatment of the delegates won by candidates who have since dropped out differs slightly depending on the type of delegate, according to the DNC rules.

That’s because candidates are able to win two kinds of pledged delegates: They can get statewide delegates if they hit the 15 percent threshold in a state overall, and they can get district-level delegates if they hit 15 percent in a congressional district. (Every state also has a number of unpledged “superdelegates” that could play a role at the DNC, but we won’t talk about those for now because they don’t get a first-ballot vote on who the nominee should be.)

Here’s what will happen to each type of pledged delegate following the candidates’ suspensions:

  • Statewide pledged delegates: These delegates will be reallocated to candidates who are still in the race when the states elect their delegates — a process that typically takes place after the primary and before the convention in July. Candidates who have hit the necessary 15 percent threshold statewide, and whose campaigns are still active, will be eligible to pick up these statewide delegates. That means, depending on the state, they’ll be given to Biden or Sen. Bernie Sanders, or split between the two.

Take Utah, for example. Although Bloomberg and Warren both reached the 15 percent viability threshold in the state, they’ve since suspended their campaigns. As a result, any delegates they gained are proportionally reallocated to Biden and Sanders, with more going to Sanders because he did better in the state.

Frontloading HQ’s Josh Putnam laid out what some of the math looks like in this Twitter thread, but the gist is that there are currently 49 statewide delegates that have been won by former candidates, and about half would go to Biden and half to Sanders.

  • District-level pledged delegates: These delegates would become “free agents” at the convention and can vote for whichever candidate they are interested in supporting in the first round at the time. District-level delegates that have already been won are not reallocated for the time being and will proceed to the convention.

Of course, all pledged delegates are solely bound by just that: a pledge. This means that any delegates in general, even those whose candidates haven’t dropped out, could theoretically defect, though it’s not likely.

The final choices of the district-level pledged delegates of a candidate who’s dropped out are also potentially influenced by a candidate’s endorsement. Given Bloomberg’s support of Biden, for example, his district-level delegates might feel more pressure to shift their backing in that direction.

The candidates who have suspended their campaigns don’t have a ton of delegates — but they could make a difference in a close contest

It’s worth noting that the candidates who have dropped out (unsurprisingly) haven’t been able to pick up a significant proportion of delegates so far. But any additional support will be important in the event of a close contest.

A candidate needs 1,991 delegates, a majority, in order to win the Democratic nomination outright. In total, the four candidates who have suspended their campaigns have 130 delegates so far.

Below are the number of delegates that every candidate who’s dropped out has accrued at this point, according to the DecisionDesk tracker:

  • Elizabeth Warren: 49
  • Mike Bloomberg: 48
  • Pete Buttigieg: 26
  • Amy Klobuchar: 7

The majority of these delegates are at the district level and poised to be “free agents” at the convention. Eighty-eight are at the district level, while 42 are at the state level.

Depending on how tight things wind up being between Sanders and Biden, these delegates could end up making the difference.


Correction: This piece previously had the incorrect delegate counts listed for Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. The delegate counts have been updated.