Ted Kennedy speaks at the 2008 DNC.

The DNC is six months away, but planning is well underway for who will fill up the Wells Fargo Center in July. Besides politicians, A-list celebrities and a helluva security detail, the convention will be filled with another group of people: delegates.

These are the people who attend the convention representing each state in the union and essentially vote for who the nominee for president will be. Usually this falls in line with the winner of the various primaries and caucuses. But it’s a complicated process to decide who actually gets to go to the convention to represent the party and it varies from state-to-state.

What is a delegate?

In order to become a presidential nominee, at least on the Democratic side, a candidate must win the majority of support from 2,382 of the more than 4,000 delegates representing each of the 50 states and American territories.

DNC delegates are selected in a variety of ways in different states, but in all cases, the delegates trying to attend the conference to represent the party (with the exception of superdelegates — more on that later) are required to pledge their support to a particular candidate prior to the primaries.

The delegates aren’t actually bound to support that candidate at the convention, but it would be frowned upon if they didn’t and, at the end of the day, campaigns have veto power over delegates. So if campaign staff for Hillary Clinton have concerns someone who pledged to her would actually support Bernie Sanders at the convention, they can technically boot that delegate from the roster.

The only delegates who don’t have to pledge who they will support ahead of time are superdelegates, of which there are nearly 800 and they make up 20 percent of the delegates. These are usually the leaders of the Democratic Party establishment — think Ed Rendell and Bob Casey types — and are coveted spots selected by the party heads of each state.

This means that heading into the DNC, 80 percent of the delegates have already pledged to support a candidate.

So which delegates actually go?

All states are required to select delegates based a on a proportion of who wins the primary in that state and how it goes down. For instance, if Hillary Clinton wins 60 percent of the primary vote in Pennsylvania and Bernie Sanders wins 40 percent, the Pennsylvania delegates who previously pledged to a candidate will be split in that proportion.

Who are these delegates?

In terms of the Pennsylvania delegation, technically anyone who is a registered Democrat can apply here by Jan. 25 to be a delegate. But for the most part, they’re people who have supported a presidential campaign in one way or another.

They also fall into different groups. This list breaks down who represented Pennsylvania as a delegate in 2012 in Charlotte, and it’s separated into several groups and committees. PLEO delegates are pledged party leaders and elected officials who aren’t unpledged superdelegates and are usually big city mayors or state legislative leaders.

From there, it’s broken down into at-large delegates, district-level delegates and standing committees and alternates. Political junkies will see a lot of familiar names on the list of those who attend the convention.

So is this just a bunch of old white guys gathering in a room?

Quite the contrary, at least with regard to the DNC. The Democratic Party is hyper-sensitive to selecting delegates who represent a wide range of groups and it aims to fill delegate seats with half women, many minority representatives and other delegates who represent sub-groups like labor, LGBT and the disabled.

Part of the application to be a PA delegate to the DNC.
Part of the application to be a PA delegate to the DNC.

Applicants to become a delegate actually have to denote which of these groups they fall into. There’s apparently a running joke that it’s kind of hard for a straight white man to be a DNC delegate, as the party only wants to bring so many to the convention.

What do these delegates even do if it’s based on the primary?

Often, the delegate system of selecting a presidential nominee is more of an ode to tradition than anything else. Almost always there is a clear winner following the primary and caucus season and the delegates at the convention are unlikely to deviate from that.

Delegates cast their “votes” through a roll call system that is actually quite cool. Here’s how it went down in 2008:

YouTube video

So what if it’s a close primary?

Shh, don’t tell Clinton’s people. But yes, if Bernie Sanders surges and somehow it’s too close to tell who actually won after primary and caucus season is over, the DNC could be important in determining who the nominee would be.

Technically, Clinton could lose by a little bit in every state but still be selected as the nominee because of the superdelegate system. As the party’s establishment candidate, she’s likely to have wayyyy more support among superdelegates than Sanders would. As of right now, it’s not expected to come down to the DNC to nominate a presidential candidate.

Sanders has talked about his efforts to swing superdelegates to his side:


But some have speculated that the Republican party could have what’s called a “brokered convention,” which is when all the states’ delegates added up don’t give one person more than 50 percent of the vote. Because there are like 84 people running for president on the Republican side, those other candidates could take away from a possible 50 percent majority of a frontrunner.

If that were to happen, basically the person who is tallying the roll will repeat the roll until a candidate is chosen. Talk about tense.

What’s the point of being a delegate?

It’s a pretty cool thing. Delegates from each state are assigned a hotel for the convention that becomes the home base of that state. For several days during the DNC, delegates will sit together, dine together, go out together and have meetings together.

It’s a long few days, but a fun few days for the delegates, many of whom know each other professionally and have the opportunity to spend time with like-minded politicos from the opposite end of their own state.

Political conventions aren’t generally open to the public, and this DNC coming up in Philadelphia could be a historical one to witness, one way or another.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.