What Happens to the Delegates After a Presidential Candidate Drops Out?

what happens to these delegates

Getty What happens to a presidential candidate's delegates after they drop out?

What happens to a presidential candidate’s delegates after they drop out? Many people may be wondering this question now that Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are both out of the presidential race.

Buttigieg dropped out of the presidential race on March 1, 2020. Klobuchar dropped out the next day. Both Klobuchar and Buttigieg were moderates. They are now expected to endorse Biden’s candidacy on Monday evening at a rally in Dallas, Dallas News reports. 

By early March, Buttigieg had won 26 pledged delegate votes in total: 23 from the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses, and three from the Nevada caucus. He received no pledged delegate votes in South Carolina. After Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, he had received the most delegates of any candidate, by that point in the race. Klobuchar, on the other hand, had earned seven delegates by the time she dropped out.

It’s worth noting that a presidential candidate needs to earn 1,991 delegates to clench the nomination. So Buttigieg and Klobuchar’s combined 33 delegates are quite a small piece of the pie, so to speak. Even if all of those delegates were to move to another candidate, it wouldn’t be make-or-break for the race.

What it could do, though, is create a shift in momentum.

There’s another point to consider, one which will confuse the matter even further: it’s possible that Buttigieg or Klobuchar will earn even more delegates after they’ve dropped out. This is because they (and other presidential candidates, like Tom Steyer and Cory Booker) will still be on the Super Tuesday voting ballots. According to Balletopedia, the Super Tuesday ballots are determined off of a voting deadline in early January. Because Buttigieg and Klobuchar were still in the race by that time, they’ll be on the ballot for Super Tuesday.

So where do those 26 or more delegates belonging to Buttigieg go? Where do the seven or more delegates belonging to Klobuchar go?

It depends on the state.

Here’s what you need to know:

Delegates Can Go a Number of Directions, After a Presidential Candidate Drops Out

Understanding the Primaries: Delegates, Democracy, and America's Nonstop Political PartyIn which John seeks to understand the strange and labyrinthine process used by the Republican and Democratic parties to select a nominee for President, focusing on the great state of Missouri, where the races were close but the delegate counts weren't. Along the way, there's a bit of discussion about political parties in U.S. politics,…2016-03-22T21:43:26.000Z


In most states, when a candidate drops out, his or her delegates go to the national convention uncommitted to any candidate (that’s why it means they’re “pledged” after a caucus; they haven’t actually voted, and will only officially vote at the Democratic National Convention). From there, they can technically vote for anyone they choose, like a superdelegate.

On the other hand, some states like Virginia and Nevada require that delegates vote for their pledged candidate in the first round of the convention no matter what, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports.

However, if a candidate drops out of the race and then goes on to endorse another active presidential candidate, then those delegates are expected to vote for the candidate the person has endorsed. Again, they’re not required to vote for anyone. For example, if Buttigieg and Klobuchar both endorsed Joe Biden after they dropped out, their delegates might vote for Biden at the convention, assuming Biden was still in the race by then. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it increases the likelihood that a candidate’s delegates will go in a specific direction.

As for what a delegate is, at all: a delegate can be a volunteer, a party chair, or even an interested citizen. They’re supposed to represent the will of the people who live in their area. According to party rules, delegates are expected to “in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.”

The question of pledged delegates is an increasingly important one, given how many presidential candidates for the Democratic party have stayed in the race for such a long period of time. Obviously, only one candidate will clinch the Democratic nomination and go on to take on Donald Trump for the presidency — but after Super Tuesday, it’s likely that more Democratic candidates will drop out, thus leaving their delegates un-pledged for the convention.

This leaves an element of the unknown leading up to the convention, rather than if a single candidate came into the convention with an overwhelming majority of delegates.

Going into Super Tuesday, here’s a breakdown of how many delegates each presidential candidate has earned, per the Associated Press:

  • Bernie Sanders: 60
  • Joe Biden: 54
  • Pete Buttigieg: 26
  • Elizabeth Warren: 8
  • Amy Klobuchar: 7

Buttigieg’s decision to drop out of the race prior to Super Tuesday was directly related to his own delegates, several sources report.

CNN reports that Buttigieg didn’t want to split the moderate vote, regarding delegate numbers, and in doing so, give Sanders an “insurmountable” delegate lead.

In other words, he might have decided to fall on his sword, so to speak, so that a more viable moderate candidate like Biden could potentially pick up more pledged delegates.

If Buttigieg and Klobuchar both chose to endorse Biden, then Biden would presumably receive many of Buttigieg and Klobuchar’s pledged delegates, if not all. This would put Biden in the lead over Sanders going into Super Tuesday, reflecting a remarkable rise for Biden in the last week.

Given how spread out the delegates have been in the beginning primaries, many people have wondered what will happen if a candidate receives less than the requisite amount of delegates (1,991 are needed) to clinch the nomination, leading up to the Democratic National Convention. When no one candidate receives the requisite amount of delegates, it becomes a “contested convention.”

FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver pointed out that Buttigieg’s decision to drop out of the race might increase the likelihood of a contested convention.

He tweeted, “Buttigieg dropping out may actually increase the likelihood of a contested convention. He was polling at <15% almost everywhere on Super Tuesday, meaning he was tracking to get very few delegates, but his votes will help other candidates to get over 15% and get delegates.”

Per Politico, there are three types of delegates: pledged leaders, elected officials, and at-large delegates. Then there are the superdelegates, who are comprised of a number of types of elected officials, including: every Democratic member of Congress, Democratic governors, all former Democratic presidents and vice presidents, and more.

Per Frontloading HQ, here’s a breakdown of how those delegates differ from one another, explained in the context of Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropping out of the race:

District delegates of Buttigieg and Klobuchar when they are selected will then immediately become free agents, free to choose a candidate to back or to let candidates woo them as they might superdelegates now. They become a set of first ballot unpledged delegates.

…Things get more complicated when it comes to the ten at-large and PLEO (pledged party leaders and elected officials) delegates. However, as was the case with district delegates, if a candidate’s campaign remains in suspension through the selection process, then those delegates will be selected for that candidate and they would become free agents at the convention.

Around this time of the election cycle, it’s normal for presidential candidates to base their decision to drop out of the race on delegates. Specifically, they might have garnered so few delegates thus far that their likelihood of gaining enough delegates in future primaries is no longer even a possibility.

But there are other, more nuanced reasons for why candidates might drop out or stay in the race longer, even if they know they won’t win.

For example, as noted in the tweet above, Elizabeth Warren is expected to continue to campaign through March. Even though she has very few delegates thus far, her team expects her to pick up a few delegates in each state, which might be enough to enter a contested convention with a chance. This is assuming that no other candidate receives the necessary majority of delegates.

On the other hand, a candidate might continue running and collecting delegates in order to increase their own leverage when they drop out. In other words, a candidate can choose to drop out and then endorse another candidate, giving them their delegates as a result.

READ NEXT: Pete Buttigieg Will Still Be on Super Tuesday Ballots: Here’s What Happens to Those Votes

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