Ask Bob: Why 15% Is Key For Democratic Presidential Candidates Seeking Delegates

Nov 4, 2019

Many of the Democratic presidential candidates are spending a lot of time in the early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina — but the awarding of delegates in the primary and caucus states could be significantly affected by what's known as "the 15% rule."

Not everybody knows about the rule, and how it could benefit certain candidates and hurt others. But VPR senior political reporter Bob Kinzel is quite aware of the rule, and so we turned to him for some answers.

What is the 15% rule?

Under the rules of the Democratic Party, in order for any candidate to be awarded any delegates from a state primary or a caucus they must receive at least 15% of the overall vote.

If you don't use this 15% threshold, then potentially more than a dozen candidates could end up with some delegates. That could make it much harder for any one candidate to win a majority on the first ballot, and trigger a "brokered convention."

(If you're curious, there has not been a brokered convention since 1952. That's when Democrats went to three ballots before nominating Adlai Stevenson. He did not win the presidency.)

Case study: How the rule plays out in caucus states

Let's travel back to 2004, when another Vermonter was running for president, to see how the 15% rule played out then in Iowa.

At a caucus site in West Des Moines — just one of the state's approximately 1,700 caucus sites — about 300 people had gathered. Right at 6:30 p.m., the moderator told all of the participants to go to a specific part of the auditorium to show their support for a particular candidate. The votes were then tallied for each group.

Howard Dean, pictured in West Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 19, 2004.
Credit Paul Sancya / Associated Press

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had 14% of the total number of people who were there, but still he fell just short of that 15% threshold. This same thing happened to other candidates, although John Kerry and John Edwards both achieved the 15% level.

After initial votes are announced, there's a 30-minute "free-for-all" period. In this case, representatives of the Kerry and Edwards campaigns would come to the backers of Dean and the other candidates in an effort to win their support. Basically these campaign workers start making deals, and the whole production shows the importance of having skilled campaign people at all the caucuses.

Once time is up, all of the supporters of the candidates who failed to receive 15% of the vote are asked if they want to join forces with one of the candidates that did get more than 15% of the vote (they don't have to, but most want to stay involved in the political process). Then a final tally is taken.

So under a caucus system, the candidates who ultimately do well in the end may have gotten a boost from picking up additional votes during that second round of voting.

Conversely, candidates like Dean who don't fare as well may not have actually done as poorly, but happened to lose all their support in caucuses where they didn't receive 15% of the vote.

What happens in traditional primary states?

It's the same rule: in order to receive any of the available delegates, a candidate must get at least 15% of the vote.

This happened in Vermont's presidential primary in 2016: Bernie Sanders received all of the available delegates because Hillary Clinton failed to get 15% of the vote (Clinton did get some superdelegates, but that's a whole different thing).

More from VPR's Ask Bob — Can Vermont Parties Cancel Their Presidential Primary?

But it can start to get complicated when there's a crowded field, like what's expected in the New Hampshire primary.

Let's look at an example: Say Candidate A gets 30% of the vote, and Candidate B gets 20% — and no other candidate hits that 15% threshold. Those other candidates don't get any delegates.

Combined, Candidate A and Candidate B got 50% of the vote, so the delegates are broken down based on the proportion of that combined vote total. Since Candidate A got three-fifths of the votes and Candidate B got two-fifths of the vote, that means Candidate A gets 60% of the delegates while Candidate B gets 40% of the delegates.

The point ends up being that the rule can make it difficult for some of those lesser known candidates to accumulate delegates during the primary process.