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Chasing California's Massive Delegate Haul: Your Guide to Election Night Math

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The California delegation cast their votes during roll call on the second day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention on July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

The process of doling out the hundreds of Democratic delegates up for grabs in California's presidential primary Tuesday is enough to make a mathematician's head hurt.

First, some context.

To win the Democratic nomination on the first ballot — meaning a candidate gets to the convention in July with the votes needed to be nominated — a candidate needs to win just over 1,990 delegates by the time all the primaries are finished.

California alone has 415 "pledged delegates," the most of any state by far. (There are also another 79 "unpledged," or "superdelegates," available, but we'll get to that in a bit.)

After California, New York is next with 274 pledged delegates — so yes, we are the 800-pound gorilla here.

Those 415 delegates get split up in two different ways: by congressional district (271) and by statewide vote (144).

Before we get into the nitty gritty, check out this short video, from CalMatters, which does a nice job breaking it down.

Congressional District Delegates

The first is by congressional district. Each of California's 53 congressinal districtss is allocated between four and seven delegates, depending on the district's population and how many votes the Democratic nominee received there in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections.

Only two Bay Area districts — the ones represented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland — have seven delegates. The rest have between four and six. You can find the full list here (pages 13-15).

That amounts to a total of 271 district-level delegates up for grabs across California's 53 districts. And to get any delegates from a given district, a candidate has to win at least 15% of the vote there.

Given that there will be millions of ballots left to count after Election Day, candidates hovering around the 15% threshold in any district will likely have to wait weeks to find out how many delegates they've potentially won. And again, any candidate who falls below the 15% threshold in that district gets nothing, freeing up the remaining delegates to be distributed to the other candidates.

Despite the days or weeks it will take to finish counting all the mail-in and provisional ballots, "we typically have a pretty good sense where most contests are headed on election night," Secretary of State Alex Padilla said Thursday. "But it is still not unusual for the outcomes of the closest contests to change in the weeks after Election Day as final ballots are counted."

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Also keep in mind that not all congressional districts are alike. In fact, the lines drawn by the California Redistricting Commission are intended to empower different "communities of interest," such as Latinos, LGBTQ people and African Americans. So a candidate who does especially well with one of those groups may try to maximize their delegate count by focusing extra resources in those districts.

"And so if you're a political campaign, you can say, 'OK, campaign team, get me the five most heavily LGBT congressional districts and let's put campaign staff there, or find me the five heaviest suburban, high-educated Asian districts and let me put my efforts there,' " said Paul Mitchell, whose firm Political Data, Inc. analyzes voter behavior.

"So if you can find a place where your core demographic is two or three times larger and you're polling 8% statewide, that might mean that you're going to get 16% or 24% of the vote in that particular district," he added. "It makes for a really interesting thing to analyze."

Statewide Delegates

The other way to get a slice of California's 415 pledged delegates is to win 15% or more of the statewide vote. There are 144 delegates, independent of congressional districts, that get allocated based on a candidates' statewide vote totals. And similar to the district rules, candidates who receive less than 15% of the statewide vote don't get any delegates from this pot.

If a candidate gets, say, 20% of the vote statewide they'll get at least 20% of those 144 delegates — or nearly 29 delegates — and possibly more if some of the other candidates have failed to exceed the 15% threshold, which is very likely.

If any one candidate approaches 45-50% of the statewide vote — which Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has the best shot at, according to a recent KQED/Change Research poll — it will make it that much harder for other candidates to hit the 15% statewide threshold needed to win a share of the 144 statewide delegates.

"But if Bernie stays in the 30s, there's plenty of room for two or maybe even three candidates to get above 15%," said San Francisco political consultant Ace Smith.

The other group of delegates are the so-called superdelegates — California has 79 of them. These are generally elected, high-profile California Democrats including the governor, members of Congress and Democratic National Committee officials.

That gives California a grand total of 494 delegates, 415 of which will be based on the outcome of Tuesday's election.

Those 79 superdelegates are considered unpledged, meaning they can support whoever they want. However, (as if this wasn't confusing enough), they're only allowed to vote on the nomination at the convention in Milwaukee after no candidate wins a majority of the delegates on the first round of voting.


But that scenario would only take place if there's a "brokered convention." Think of it like a game of "Survivor," where candidates try to make deals with other candidates and delegates to win enough support to secure the nomination.

That hasn't happened in more than half a century, but with so many candidates running, it's at least possible this year.

Whatever happens Tuesday and the days afterward, California finally has the relevance it has long sought in a presidential primary campaign.

"So this is a new experience and I think Californians love being part of the presidential process," Smith said. The last truly competitive presidential primary in California, he noted, was in 1968, when Bobby Kennedy won, only to be fatally shot on election night while giving his victory speech in Los Angeles.

And yet, come Super Tuesday, California's voice will be somewhat muted by the other states holding primaries that day, predicts UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser.

"We're gonna be one of the last of those to come in on election night, and everyone on the East Coast will have gone to bed before our first returns are rolling in," Kousser said, adding it will take weeks to finish counting the late ballots. "California's voice will be softened."

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