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What is a Delegate?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A delegate is a person who is generally empowered to represent a larger group. Such a group might be a union, a non-profit organization, a state, a political organization or a corporation. For example, a member of the United States House of Representatives is a delegate for the territory, which elected him or her. As a member of the House, he or she works in the interests of his or her territory, at least theoretically.

To delegate is to give authority or responsibility to others. In a sense, those who chose a delegate are choosing someone who will represent them and their interests. Instead of representing one’s self, a large organization may choose one or several people who are empowered to act for the company. This person is often also called a representative.

Though a delegate may represent the interests of an organized body, not all are equally empowered to act. For example, a delegate of a company who might participate in union negotiations may not be able to make decisions for the company. He or she may assert the interests of the company, but may need to have decisions approved by the heads of a company.

Similarly, a delegate for a union might be limited in powers. He or she might be able to bring a company’s proposed deal to the union, but union members may have the power to vote on final contractual decisions.

With a delegate who is a member of the House of Representatives, the person is supposed to represent all of his constituents. However, this is rarely the case. Instead, the delegate usually represents the interests of the party who elected him or her. Unless the person commits an act that would ban him from the House, he or she can vote on any issues by personal decision. The representative has enough power to act independently of the people represented. However, failure to vote in a fashion that satisfies the majority of the people will usually result in voters electing someone else in the future.

Sometimes, candidates for major political offices, like the US presidency, are called superdelegates. Each candidate is essentially a delegate who is attempting to gain the office and lead the country from a specific political ideology, i.e., Democrat, Republican or Libertarian. Such people represent the political parties that support them, but since the job of President is such a large one, the “superdelegate” term is deserved.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon301444 — On Nov 04, 2012

I think the electoral college is a bunch of crap, and it's not fair that the candidate who gets the popular vote may not become our president. We need to change and do away with the delegate vote. I think most people would agree, let the candidate who gets the most number of votes win.

By anon17343 — On Aug 27, 2008

how can we have a delegate that is not old enough to vote yet? therefore not able to cast a vote as a delegate.

By raine — On Aug 25, 2008

"There are a total of 4,049 Democratic and 2,380 Republican delegates." Why are there more Democratic delegates? Doesn't that tip the scales in their favor? Does it change from year to year depending on the vote? Does our vote on election day really matter?

By kmoon — On Apr 06, 2008

Hi, I am a delegate. I went to my precinct caucus and voted. I was chosen to represent my precinct at the county convention. Then I was chosen to represent my county at the state democratic convention. There I will be one of thousands that can be chosen to represent the state at the Democratic national convention in Denver. There is no guarantee that I will get to be a National convention delegate, but I hope that will be the case. I took an oath at the county level to represent the people and that means that I will vote the popular vote. Not all delegates do, but we are regular people in a community and also have the same concerns about the peoples vote being counted. So that is what I will do. I will represent the voters honestly. i am not a superdelegate, that job goes to the politicians. I vote to try and eliminate the need for them hopefully.

By jlm — On Mar 05, 2008

OK I am getting the delegates vote is “supposed” to represent the constituents he/she represents from his/her home state. So when do the delegates and superdelegates vote? If the delegates are to represent, it should be after his/her state votes so they see who got the popular vote, correct?

By andy0 — On Feb 20, 2008

How powerful is a delegate? Does the number of people it represents determine how much influence it has?

By virtualmiken — On Feb 18, 2008


Try google for strings "superdelegates-explained-video"

Hope it helps

By anon8450 — On Feb 13, 2008

So many questions and not enough answers. Obviously this is a very murky area for many of us. Is there a political science buff that can give us good answers to these questions?

By anon8410 — On Feb 13, 2008

Can a regular person (not an elected or party official) become a delegate and if so how?

By anon8375 — On Feb 12, 2008

I'm still confused. If a delegate is a person and the popular vote is determined by the people, then how do you distinguish the difference between the two and how do you win in both?

Someone said pledged delegates are awarded based on popular vote, when they say pledged delegates who exactly are they referring to (Obama & Hillary)?

What determines if you are pledged or unpledged and how do you know. Why would Bill Clinton and Al Gore be classified as unpledged or super delegates?

By lgcowell — On Feb 10, 2008

since a candidate must only achieve a minimum number of delegates to become the party nominee, does this mean that once that number is attained, no subsequent votes matter? in other words, could a candidate achieve the minimum number early in the primary season and be named nominee, but if other states had held their primaries earlier, the other candidate would have been made the nominee?

By anon8182 — On Feb 09, 2008

Why do the democrats have to have more delegates than the republicans and how are the delegates chosen?

By anon8163 — On Feb 08, 2008

How many regular votes, like mine, does it take to get a delegate vote? I really don't see why we have to use delegates representing a group of voters. Why can't it be just the majority of votes wins? What's wrong with one man one vote? If a candidate wins the popular vote like Al Gore did it just makes sense that he should be our leader. This delegate thing, especially the superdelegates, just seems like another safety net for politicians with special interests to protect themselves from the voice of the common citizen. In a sense I feel our vote really doesn't have an impact. The power still belongs to the politicians and the delegate politicians who vote them in. What a scam.

By rjohnson — On Feb 08, 2008

Sparkle - Yes, technically, the superdelegates can vote against the popular vote. Pundits expect that superdelegates will vote roughly in line with the popular vote. If the popular vote was not close and strongly in favor of say Candidate A over Candidate B, it might be possible, depending on the numbers, for a superdelegates (or unpledged delegate) to cast their votes to make Candidate B win, but it would be highly unlikely. Remember this is the party's primary election we are talking about. The logic goes that superdelegates the officials and leaders of the party should have some say in the direction of the party. The only reason we are hearing so much about superdelegates right now is because the popular vote is so close.

Anonymous - A delegate is a person. But the word delegates is also used to refer to the votes that the delegates cast in favor of a candidate, so that can be a little confusing. Some well-known superdelegates on the Democrat side include Barbara Boxer, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Howard Dean, Chris Dodd, and Al Gore. I'm afraid I don't know any examples of unpledged delegates on the Republican side...I'd assume both George Bushes, Mike Duncan (RNC Chairman), Rudy Giulliani, Alan Keyes, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anyone know for sure?

By anon8135 — On Feb 08, 2008

I am having trouble understanding what a delegate is. Is it a person? I understand the the popular vote does not count, only delegate votes, but how does the delegate vote coincide with the popular vote? Please help..

By anon8095 — On Feb 07, 2008

Posted by: kdlm912 -- I ask the same question as nanalove10. In ref to the 2008 caucuses, I can't understand what good it will do me to vote if a group of delegates is going to make the decision. It seems like a waste of time.

By sparkle — On Feb 07, 2008

so, if they (superdelegates) do not agree with the popular vote, they can decide to pick a different candidate?

By rjohnson — On Feb 07, 2008

There are two types of delegates in the 2008 primaries - pledged and unpledged. The Democrats use the term superdelegates for unpledged delegates. Pledged delegates are awarded based on the popular vote (i.e., people's individual votes) and these pledged delegates make up the bulk of delegates awarded. So, it's not fair to say that a person's vote doesn't count if these "delegates" do the deciding. But it _is_ possible for a candidate to get win the popular vote and win in delegates. This is primarily because superdelegates (or unpledged delegates) are party leaders who can award their delegate vote to a candidate irrespective of the how the popular vote went. Things have been set up this way in _both_ parties because the parties themselves want some control in which candidate is picked to represent their party.

By sparkle — On Feb 06, 2008

So who decides if a candidate gets Superdelegates? this is the part that makes it seem that our votes really don't count.

So a candidate can get more popular votes but doesn't have enough "Superdelegates" and so they will lose?

By jnerikaat — On Feb 06, 2008

How do I find out who my delegate is?

By sparkle — On Feb 06, 2008

who decides who the delegates are and how many delegates each candidate gets?

By nanalove10 — On Feb 06, 2008

Does the Delegate decide who he wants to be a delegate for or is he appointed to that candidate?

By nanalove10 — On Feb 06, 2008

In ref to the 2008 caucuses, I can't understand what good it will do me to vote if a group of delegates is going to make the decision.

By anon7979 — On Feb 05, 2008

but delegates to what? what do they represent? they must obviously represent more then one thing. and when they are awarded- how do they figure out what delegates to award?

By rjohnson — On Feb 05, 2008

Anonymous - Delegates and popular votes (i.e., votes from the people) are two different things. In fact, in the primaries it is the delegates that ultimately determine whether a candidate will the party's nominee. The Democratic nominee in the 2008 presidential election will have to win 2025 delegates, and the Republican 1191 delegates -- not popular votes. There are millions of popular votes that are cast across the country in the primaries, so it couldn't be 2,025 or 1,191 popular votes. How the popular votes go does inform to some degree how the delegates are awarded though.

By anon7958 — On Feb 05, 2008

what does it mean that a candidate needs 2025 or 1191 delegates? Is it 2025 or 1191 votes from the people?

By rjohnson — On Feb 05, 2008

In the 2008 presidential primary, 2,025 delegates will be needed for a candidate to secure the Democratic nomination and 1,191 delegates will be needed for a candidate to secure the Republican nomination. There are a total of 4,049 Democratic and 2,380 Republican delegates.

Delegates are not only awarded in relation to how the popular vote goes. Pledged delegates are awarded based on the popular vote. But unpledged delegates (also called Superdelegates in the Democratic party) can be given to candidates irrespective of how they fare in the popular vote. These unpledged delegates are meant to give party leaders a voice in the nominating process.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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