Summary: Pledged delegates are proportionately allocated to candidates getting 15% or more in a primary or caucus. In such a large field, this may complicate the nominating process.
Each state (and territory) has a certain number of pledged delegates that are allocated based on the result of the vote in its Democratic primary or caucus. For those states with more than one congressional district, the available delegates are split - some are awarded based on the statewide (at-large) vote, while the remainder are based on the results in each individual congressional district*.
Pledged delegates are allocated in a proportional manner based on the vote share received by each candidate. This is at both the statewide and congressional district level.
There is a 15% minimum threshold to receive any delegates. Those not receiving the minimum are excluded, with the delegate pool divided proportionately among those candidates receiving 15% or more.
Implications for 2020
The Democratic nominating contest in 2016 was essentially between two candidates - Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The 2020 field is starting out much larger. Even if a few withdraw later this year, there will likely be 10+ candidates in the race when the Iowa caucuses kick off the nominating process on February 3rd. Given the more front-loaded 2020 calendar, this larger group is likely to be around for more events than would otherwise be the case.
The biggest potential implication of proportional allocation in such a large field is that no candidate arrives at the Milwaukee convention in July with enough delegates to win -- and a brokered convention results.
However, there are a couple issues at the state level that could also arise in these large field 2020 contests that weren't really mathematically possible in the two-person 2016 race
As we noted earlier, the threshold is determined at the individual congressional district level for district delegates and the state level for the statewide delegates. That in mind, these issues - to the extent they arise - may only affect a subset of a state's pledged delegates.
The above discussion is for pledged delegates only. Each state also has a certain number of automatic delegates, commonly referred to as unpledged or superdelegates. The role for superdelegates in 2020 will depend on how many pledged delegates the leader has after all primary and caucus events are completed. Here's an overview of how that will work.
* A few states use divisions other than congressional districts. For example, Texas uses state senatorial districts. However, the broad point is the same - there are separate statewide and 'local' proportional delegate allocations.
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