Doing the primary math

In the wake of Tuesday’s Democratic primary results, political pundits were forced to reach for their calculators in an effort to try to figure out what it all meant.

Although it is the statewide vote that is the most closely watched index on election night, the scramble for convention delegates is even more important. The delegates will decide at the Democratic National Convention in August which contender will be the party’s nominee for president.

The count is particularly important in the Democratic race, which has become a mathematical battle between Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

California Democrats apportion most of their delegates based on a candidate’s share of the vote in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts. In all, 241 of the state’s delegates are handed out based on a candidate’s performance in the congressional districts. Another 129 delegates are handed out based on a candidate’s statewide vote total.

In addition, 71 delegates, known as superdelegates, are not decided by the election but have been chosen in advance because they are members of California’s Democratic congressional delegation or are ranking members of the Democratic National Committee. California has a total of 441 Democratic convention delegates.

But doing the math isn’t always easy.

First off, candidates can only receive delegates if they receive at least 15 percent of the vote in a given congressional district. Obama and Clinton were the only candidates to receive more than 15 percent in all of the state’s congressional districts. Each district has between three and six delegates. Congressional districts are given extra delegates in places where Democratic registration is higher. Rep. Jim Costa’s 20th Congressional District only has 95,510 registered Democrats and was only awarded three delegates. But Barbara Lee’s Oakland-area district has 210,481 registered Democrats and received six convention delegates.

That means a split result in most of the state’s congressional districts, with lots of decimal points and fractions. But the DNC has a formula to erase all that. Each candidate had their total vote percentage in each district multiplied by each district’s number of delegates. Any fraction or decimal point is dropped from the total, but the overall winner in the district gets any leftover delegate.

So, for example, in the state’s first Congressional District, Obama received 46.1 percent of the vote, and Clinton received 45.7. That was enough to give each candidate two of the district’s five delegates. The extra delegate was awarded to Obama for receiving the most votes in that particular district.

Overall, Clinton received more votes than Obama in 42 of the state’s 53 Congressional districts. In some of those districts, she won a clear majority. In CD 32, for example, she received 71 percent of the Democratic vote. But in others it was a mere plurality. In CD 53, Clinton was clinging to a lead of less than half of a percentage point, just more than 200 votes. But those 200 votes are good for an extra delegate, since the district has five convention delegates.

Another 129 delegates are decided by the statewide vote. Again, the delegates are divided among the candidates according to the votes for each candidate. Since only Obama and Clinton received more than 15 percent of the statewide vote, all of those 129 delegates will be handed out proportionately, based on their statewide vote tallies.

Clinton won 52 percent of the statewide vote, and 71 of the statewide delegates. Obama captured 42 percent of the popular vote in California, earning 58 delegates.

Overall, Clinton won 207 delegates last night, while Obama won 163.

But while Clinton won 52 percent of the vote Tuesday, she received 56 percent of the 370 delegates that were at stake. Obama won 42 percent of the vote and won 44 percent of the delegates at stake.

Figures and computations for this story were compiled and conducted by ElectionTrack. For more information, visit

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