About those delegates: South Carolina is not a “winner-take-all” state

conventionWorried that your presidential candidate might not finish first in the South Carolina primary and, even if they come close, not receive any of the all-important delegates from the Palmetto State because you’ve heard we’re a “winner-take-all” state? Well, that’s not exactly right.

In fact, despite local and national media outlets (like here, and here, and even here) reporting the South Carolina Republican primary is “winner-take-all,” that’s not correct, either for the state’s Republicans or Democrats. And while it is distinctly possible one candidate to receive support from all of the state’s delegates, especially on the Republican side, it very rarely happens, and almost never in a contested primary.

Most South Carolina voters realize that these delegate slots are important, because it’s these people who go to their party’s convention and actually determine their party’s nominee, much like it’s the Electoral College that officially determines who the President will be after the general election.

And while there are several states holding their primaries after South Carolina that award their delegates have “winner-take-all” awards, the early voting states are strongly discouraged by both parties from automatically giving all of their delegates to a single candidate.

Here’s how the major parties in South Carolina determine which candidates receive delegates, as well as a look at previous results:


South Carolina Republicans will have 50 voting delegates attend their national convention this year.

Slightly more than half of them, 26, will be pledged to the candidate that receives the most vote statewide, insuring that the top vote-getter gets the lion’s share of the delegates. Twenty-one of the remaining delegates, however, are awarded by Congressional District, meaning if a candidate has the most votes in a single area, regardless of how well or poorly they have done in the rest of the state, they will get that district’s delegates.

The remaining three delegates are reserved for the party itself to determine who gets to have voting privileges at the convention. Typically, these are high-ranking officials within the state party.

This split of the Republican delegates has happened in each of the last three contested primaries. In 2012, Mitt Romney earned two delegates by winning the 1st Congressional District, preventing that year’s top vote-getter, Newt Gingrich, from sweeping the state despite losing the statewide vote by more than 12 percentage points.

In 2008, when South Carolina only had six Congressional districts, eventual nominee John McCain received most of the state’s delegates, however he saw his total margin of victory cut into by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who finished second, was able to nab delegates by winning three of the state’s districts.

In 2000, it was McCain who was able to grab three delegates from eventual nominee George W. Bush by receiving the most votes in the Charleston area.

The larger the field, the greater the potential for split delegate counts. In fact, while improbable, it’s still at least mathematically possible that as many as seven different candidates could leave South Carolina with pledged delegates.


Splitting the delegates coming out of South Carolina for the Democrats is an even easier proposition, since they award 51 of their 57 delegates on a proportional basis, determined by the statewide vote.

Because of this, it’s distinctly possible that more than two candidates can receive delegates from the Palmetto State. In 2008, the last time South Carolina Democrats had a contested primary, three candidates – Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, each initially walked away with delegates. The same happened in 2004, the only other recent competitive primary, when state Democrats awarded pledged delegates to not only the top vote-getter, John Edwards, but also eventual party nominee John Kerry, and third-place finished Rev. Al Sharpton.

The remaining six Democratic delegates are unpledged.

It’s important to note that, for each party, once a pledged delegate arrives at their national convention, they are only required to remain loyal to their candidate for the first vote in their party’s nomination process.

It hasn’t happened in a long time, but if no candidate is able to win their party’s nomination on the first vote at their convention, all allegiances are off, and delegates can vote for whomever they want, including people that weren’t even campaigning or running for office during the primary.

So, if you’ve been discouraged by recent polls showing your candidate might come up a little short in South Carolina and have heard media reports implying it might be impossible for them to earn any of those all-important delegates, remember past history and the nominating processes of each party make it unlikely that anyone will be the winner that takes all.

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