How is Democratic nominee selected?

The process for selecting the Democratic nominee for president is complex and goes through several phases. It involves voters in each state casting ballots in a series of primaries and caucuses, state delegate selection, and finally the national Democratic convention where the nominee is formally chosen.

The Primary/Caucus Phase

The selection of the Democratic presidential nominee starts with a series of state primaries and caucuses held from January to June in the election year. This is the first opportunity for voters to have a say in who should be the nominee.

A primary is a state-level election where voters cast secret ballots for the candidate they want to represent the Democratic party in the general election. Primaries are run by state governments according to their own rules and procedures.

A caucus is also held at the state level but rather than a secret ballot, voters gather at local meetings to publically express support for a candidate. Votes are tallied at the end of the meetings and state delegates are assigned based on the results.

Not all states hold primaries, some hold caucuses instead. The first state primary/caucus is traditionally held in Iowa, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. A full roster of primaries and caucuses takes place from March-June.

Democratic voters in each state cast ballots for their preferred candidate, or express their preference in a caucus. Candidates earn a certain number of state delegates based on the proportion of votes they get. So if a candidate gets 40% of the vote in a state primary, they would earn around 40% of that state’s delegates.


In addition to delegates assigned based on votes, the Democratic party also has ‘superdelegates’ – party leaders and elected officials who can vote for the candidate of their choice at the national convention. Superdelegates make up about 15% of the total delegates.

The Role of Super Tuesday

An important early milestone in the process is Super Tuesday, which usually falls in early March. On Super Tuesday, many states hold their primaries on the same day. With so many delegates up for grabs, Super Tuesday typically helps narrow the field of candidates.

Some candidates may drop out if they perform poorly on Super Tuesday, while others may pick up enough delegates to secure front-runner status. Super Tuesday contests in big states like California and Texas can make or break campaigns.

Securing the Nomination – Delegates and Pledged Delegates

In order to become the Democratic nominee, a candidate must secure a majority of delegates at the national convention. The number needed for this majority is determined by the total number of delegates allocated across all 50 states, territories, Democrats Abroad group, and superdelegates.

For the 2024 election, there will be an estimated 4,750 total delegates, meaning a candidate needs 2,375 delegate votes to win the nomination at the convention.

The number of delegates up for grabs in each state primary or caucus differs based on a number of factors like population and when they vote. California has the most delegates in 2024 with 495. Smaller states like Delaware only have 21 delegates.

During the primary phase from January to June, candidates aim to amass ‘pledged delegates’ who are bound to support them at the convention based on the primary/caucus results in each state. Pledged delegates make up around 85% of total delegates.

If a candidate reaches 2,375 pledged delegates during the primary phase, they clinch the nomination before the convention even begins. This is rare though, more often the initial primary phase ends without any candidate reaching a majority of pledged delegates.

The Convention and Nomination

If no candidate has enough pledged delegates from the primaries and caucuses alone, the nomination process moves to a contested national convention. This convention is attended by delegates who were won during the primary phase as well as superdelegates.

At the convention, there are further rounds of delegate voting until one candidate emerges with a majority needed to secure the nomination. This is the official moment that the party has its presidential nominee.

In early rounds of voting at a contested convention, all delegates including superdelegates get to cast their vote for any candidate. If subsequent rounds are needed, some delegates become ‘unpledged’ – meaning they can change their vote to back any candidate, not just the one they are pledged to.

Bargaining and Negotiating

There is often intense bargaining and negotiating during a contested convention between candidates seeking more support. Candidates may offer prominent party roles or influence on their platform to woo unpledged delegates.

Even if a candidate arrives at the convention with the most delegates, they are not guaranteed the nomination. Trailing candidates can persuade other delegates to join their side in order to claim the majority needed.

However, in recent decades the candidate with the clear majority of delegates from the primary phase has gone on to take the nomination without a genuinely contested floor fight at the convention.


Selecting the Democratic presidential nominee is a months-long process centered around amassing delegate support through state primaries and caucuses. To become the nominee, a candidate generally needs to secure 2,375 out of the approximately 4,750 total delegates.

This majority of delegates is usually won during the primary/caucus phase from January to June. But when no candidate has enough delegates from primaries and caucuses alone, the nomination is decided at the national Democratic convention through further delegate voting until one candidate secures the majority.

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