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  • What delegates are and why they’re needed

  • As a political science professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the topic of delegates has come up this semester in Anthony Nownes’ classroom.

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  • As a political science professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the topic of delegates has come up this semester in Anthony Nownes’ classroom.
    He has told his students it’s OK not to understand who delegates are, why the number needed to elect a presidential candidate changes each year or why the number of delegates varies by state. He admits he doesn’t fully understand the process, either.
    “The more you read, the more you know it’s impossible to understand,” he said. “It’s as complicated and stupid as you think it is. ... The rules change every year.”
    Even with the presidential election still months away, the word “delegate” has already been in the news. To secure the Republican nomination for president this year, a candidate needs 1,144 delegates. This spring — before GOP candidate Rick Santorum dropped out of the race — there was pressure on the former Pennsylvania senator and fellow Republican candidate Newt Gingrich to step down and allow front-runner Mitt Romney to collect the necessary votes.
    Below are a few questions and answers from political experts about the roles and rules of delegates.
    1. Who are delegates? What is their role in selecting a presidential candidate? Delegates are people who are chosen to represent each state at a political party’s national convention. A candidate becomes their party’s nominee for president after a vote is taken by delegates at the convention. This year, 1,144 delegate votes are needed for the GOP candidate to earn the presidential nomination, which is 50 percent — plus one — of the total number of delegates, Nownes said. Rules for picking delegates change from state to state. Nownes said congressmen and other elected officials automatically serve as delegates, while party activists also serve in the role. Others can apply to political parties to become delegates. For instance, he said some of his students applied and will attend the GOP national convention this year as delegates.
    2. There are more Democratic than Republican delegates. Why is that? According to Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, Democrats and Republicans select delegates in different ways, and they have the right to choose how selection is done — it’s their party. He said there’s no particular reason for the differences between the number of Republican and Democratic delegates — it’s simply how the parties opt to do it. The number of delegates changes with each election, but Nownes said there are generally about twice as many Democratic delegates as there are Republican. He believes that’s because Republicans traditionally operated under a “winner take all” system, while Democrats set aside numbers of delegates to include minorities, homosexuals and women. However, he said, Republicans switched their system to be “more proportional” this year, which may be why front-runner Romney was slower to secure the party’s nomination.
    Page 2 of 2 - 3. Why are delegates even needed when there are state-by-state primaries? Kondik said parties determine whether delegates are needed — that’s the way they prefer to do it. “My hunch is that the parties still use delegates so they can exert more control over the process,” he said. “And, tradition is a hard thing to change.” Nownes agreed. He said the process creates a hybrid political system that allows regular people to vote while still allowing parties to maintain control over the process.
    4. Other than attending the party’s convention and casting a vote for a candidate, does the job of a delegate involve any other work? Nownes said a delegate’s duty involves only that — attending the national convention and casting a vote. “They go to the convention, they party. They vote, they party … and they go home,” he said. “Their job is complete. They have the memories.”
    Delegate vocab
    As the election nears, here are a few words to know when it comes to delegates:
    Delegate: People who are chosen to represent their states at a political party’s national convention. Delegates vote for one candidate, and if no clear majority is reached, they must continue voting until that happens.
    Superdelegate: The Democrats have superdelegates, which are elected officials, such as members of Congress, in addition to party officials. Superdelegates make up 20 percent of all delegates at the party’s national convention and can support whomever they wish.
    Brokered convention: If the convention can’t reach a clear majority of support for one candidate, a brokering process takes place. This hasn’t happened with either party since 1952. However, some thought this could be a possibility between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008. Superdelegates were created to avoid brokered conventions because they can use their votes to put someone over the top and avoid deadlock.
    Source: Council on Foreign Relations, cfr.org

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