Do Delegates Have Free Will?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 14 2000 3:02 PM

Do Delegates Have Free Will?

Last Thursday, Bill Bradley withdrew from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Republican John McCain announced that he was "suspending" his campaign. Bradley said he would not release his delegates to the Democratic nominating convention. Similarly, news reports suggested that McCain used the term "suspending"--as opposed to "withdrawing"--in order to retain control of the delegates he has won so far. How do the candidates keep control of their delegates?

Advertisement

The two national parties set the rules for the selection and responsibilities of their delegates. (All states have their own laws regarding delegates, but in recent decades the U.S. Supreme Court has struck them down, ruling that the parties can set the policies.) Democrats dictate their policy from the top down: All delegates are pledged, but not bound, to reflect the conscience of the candidate they were chosen to represent. The Republican Party, on the other hand, relies heavily on its organization in each state to set the rules regarding its delegates. A handful of state parties give delegates complete autonomy to vote at the convention for whomever they chose. Others require that the delegates vote for their candidate until the candidate releases them from that obligation.

On the Republican side, McCain will have considerable leverage at his party's convention, because he'll have at least six delegations obligated to remain in his corner. He would lose the support of these delegations only by officially releasing them, not by withdrawing from the race. (McCain delegates from a seventh state--New Hampshire--would be released if he did withdraw.) Under GOP rules, six delegations are needed to pass a motion that would allow McCain to bring a special amendment to the convention floor for consideration by the entire Republican Party--not to mention the audience watching at home. (Note to Bush: Incorporate campaign-finance reform into party platform in advance.) McCain will also have enough support to be officially nominated for president at the convention.

Bill Bradley may say he is retaining his delegates, but in the Democratic Party an official withdrawal severely weakens a candidate's power at the convention. Since he has withdrawn, Bradley will not be able to appoint supporters to the all-important convention committees, which determine the rules and the platform for the convention.

In addition, he will lose a significant number of the delegates already placed in his column by news organizations. In the Democratic primary process, one group of delegates from every state--the at-large delegates--is officially allocated late in the primary season. If a candidate drops out of the race, party rules dictate that his at-large delegates are to be distributed among the remaining candidates. In New York, for example, MSNBC News reported that Bradley earned 87 delegates. At the convention, this number will drop to roughly 70.

As a result, Democratic candidates, unlike their Republican counterparts, have a real incentive to "suspend" their campaigns, as opposed to ending them. In recent history, a number of Democrats have chosen to suspend their presidential candidacies, including Al Gore in 1988. By contrast, only one other Republican in recent memory has chosen to suspend a campaign that made it into the primaries: John McCain's new nemesis Pat Robertson, in 1988.

News reports have also suggested that McCain may have suspended his campaign in order to remain eligible for additional federal matching funds. In order to receive funds for an active candidacy, however, McCain would have to continue campaigning in at least one state. Later this month, the Federal Election Commission is likely to rule that McCain's announcement last Thursday was a de facto withdrawal. Accordingly, he will be eligible for the same funds that are available to Bradley and any other major candidate who withdraws: money to help retire his campaign's debt and close his campaign's offices.

Explainer thanksSlatereader Dan Dupont for suggesting the question and Professor Bill Mayer of Northeastern University for helping to answer it.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 9:22 AM The Most Populist Campaign of 2014
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 9:13 AM Clive James, Terminally Ill, Has Written an Exquisitely Resigned Farewell Poem
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.