Party rules could extend Democratic primary race long beyond Michigan
Lansing — Michigan's primary may not immediately decide the Democratic presidential nominee because a heated race and party rules increase the chances that the eventual winner will take a longer time to amass enough delegates.
While there will be a focus on Michigan's popular vote — the statewide totals for each candidate — the real battle will be in winning the most delegates from Michigan to the mid-July Democratic National Convention. Those 147 individuals get to directly weigh in on who the nominee is, and a candidate needs 1,991 delegates to win the nomination.
The system, which awards delegates proportionally and allocates a majority of delegates at the congressional level, helps keep a competitive nomination race going, said Robert Yoon, a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Michigan, who's covered five presidential campaigns.
"The way the Democratic nomination rules are set up, in a competitive race, it makes it much harder for the lead candidate to pull away," Yoon said. "And it makes it harder for a challenging candidate to fall behind.”
Michigan will have 147 delegates at the convention in Milwaukee. The state is tied with New Jersey for having the eighth most delegates. California, which voted last Tuesday, has the most delegates at 494.
When there were five to eight candidates in the past two months, analysts envisioned a brokered convention where a nominee wouldn't be chosen on the first ballot. Now that the race has narrowed to mainly former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the chances are dimmer of a deadlocked convention where the nominee is anointed by "automatic" or "super" delegates who can start voting on the second ballot.
Because of the way the system works, there are multiple paths a candidate can take to collect support from a majority of Michigan's delegates without winning the state's popular vote on Tuesday.
As Yoon explained, the system morphs together the way the party picked a nominee decades ago, relying on party insiders, with elements relying on the popular vote of those participating in the primary.
At-large and district delegates
There are essentially four types of delegates. In Michigan, there are 82 district-level delegates; 27 at-large delegates; 16 pledged party leader and elected official delegates; and 22 automatic delegates.
The 125 district-level, at-large and pledged delegates will be allocated in ways that correspond to results on March 10.
For the 82 district delegates, they are divvied up equally based on gender and divided based on the results within congressional districts and the number of Democratic voters in the 2016 and 2018 elections within the districts.
For instance, the 14th District in southeast Michigan, a heavily Democratic district represented by U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, has nine district-level delegates, the most in Michigan.
But the heavily Republican 10th District, represented by Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, which includes portions of Macomb County and the Thumb area, has four district-level delegates to the Democratic convention.
The district-level delegates are rewarded in proportion to the percentage of the vote won in that district by a candidate. However, candidates getting less than 15% of the vote get no delegates, and their votes are excluded from the calculation.
The 27 at-large delegates and 16 pledged party leader and elected official delegates are awarded through a similar calculation. However, they are divvied up based on the statewide vote.
Choosing 'loyal' backers
To fill the delegate positions, Democrats can apply to the Michigan Democratic Party. When they do, they have to state which candidate they support. The candidates later get to sign off on potential delegates.
Under the party's rules, Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes will send the candidates' campaigns lists of their potential delegates on April 20. By April 27, the candidates have to file lists of the delegates of whom they approve.
That's an important step because if a candidate wins a delegate position, that candidate wants to ensure a trusted supporter goes to the convention to back them so the delegate doesn't switch alliances.
These individuals tend to be "loyalists" to candidates, said Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. Candidates vet their lists of potential delegates to try to ensure their picks will stick with them in a convention fight.
“It’s very, very important that all of the candidates vet the list of delegate candidates to make sure they’ve got somebody who’s loyal to them," Brewer said.
The party won't share numbers or comment on the ongoing application or selection process, said Christian Slater, spokesman for the Michigan Democratic Party,.
But Yoon, the visiting professor at UM, said "sophisticated" presidential campaigns put a lot of effort and thought into finding people to serve as potential delegates. Less sophisticated campaigns don't have the luxury, he said. And they can end up with people who may later switch allegiances.
There are also automatic delegates — previously known as super delegates — high-ranking Democratic officials who get to weigh in on the nomination.
Michigan has 22 of them. They include seven U.S. House Democrats, Michigan's two Democratic U.S. senators, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan members of the Democratic National Committee.
The automatic delegates are not pledged to specific candidates but don't get to vote on the first ballot.
Brewer, the former party chairman, said the reform was put in place after the 2016 election. In 2016, supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders criticized the influence of super delegates.
To lock up the nomination on the first ballot, one candidate would have to get one more than a majority of the 3,979 pledged delegates. If the fight goes to a second ballot where automatic delegates get to vote, there would be a total of 4,750 delegates in play.
The nation’s delegate and primary system is not ideal, said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist and director for the Institute of Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. The current system evolved gradually from one in which convention delegates alone selected candidates to a more democratic system that wove in the popular vote, he said.
Besides Sanders, no other candidate has committed to awarding the nomination to the candidate with the largest number of delegates.
Other candidates have insisted on the nominee taking a majority of delegates, which at one time increased the likelihood of a brokered convention, Grossmann said. But a three-candidate field including U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii may have lessened the prospect.
“Overall, more contested, more split primaries, are associated with worse general election outcomes,” Grossmann said. “It is better to have a clear front-runner for the party."