The Democrats’ presidential nominating process is such a confusing mess that 2020 candidates are spending tons of money to navigate it

The 2016 Democratic National Convention.

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The 2016 Democratic National Convention.
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Earl Gibson III/WireImage

  • Democratic presidential candidates are hiring top tier operatives to navigate the complex delegate system in the primary race.
  • The Democratic National Committee reformed the delegate system after the 2016 election.
  • Obtaining delegates is key to winning the presidential nomination, which could ultimately come down to the National Convention in July 2020.
  • Some state primaries and caucuses award only some of the delegates to the top few finishing candidates. Some are winner-take-all. It is a complex process that requires real talent to navigate.
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“I don’t have a team counting delegates,” said presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke in a Vanity Fair profile on the eve of his 2020 bid for the Democratic nomination. A few months later, O’Rourke announced his campaign hired Jeff Berman, the architect behind former President Barack Obama’s historic path to obtaining the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

The delegate process in the primaries is crucial to winning the nomination. And despite reforms from the Democratic National Committee to avoid another 2016 scenario in which Hillary Clinton amassed an army of superdelegates, 2020 candidates are going all in on developing airtight delegate strategies.

Read more: Beto O’Rourke is running for president in 2020. Here’s everything we know about the candidate and how he stacks up against the competition.

The reforms made in 2018 significantly limited the power of superdelegates, who in 2016 pledged their support for Clinton early on, severely limiting other candidates from gaining any substantial ground. The new rules prohibit those delegates from voting on the first ballot for the party’s presidential nominee at the national convention.

So in the event of a contested convention where there is not a clear presumptive nominee, those superdelegates might come in handy on a second ballot.

The systems also vary by party. Republicans have considerably more winner-take-all primary races, which is why then-candidate Donald Trump easily trounced the rest of the GOP field.

In a massive, 22-person Democratic field, campaigns need delegate experts to emerge victorious – otherwise it is simply impossible to win. For example, some state primaries and caucuses award only some of the delegates to the top few finishing candidates. Some are winner-take-all. It is a complex process that requires real talent to navigate.

Democratic candidates want to survive long enough to win crucial states

Already, the 2020 presidential candidates are taking the delegate process seriously, recruiting seasoned operatives as the election cycle gets underway.

O’Rourke’s hiring of Berman is significant, as he helped Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016. O’Rourke’s campaign manager O’Malley Dillon made an effort early on to recruit Berman, which was widely viewed as a big win for the campaign. Berman quite literally wrote the book on how to court delegates and obtain a nomination.

Read more: There are 2 different ways for states to choose presidential nominees – and there are some major differences between them

O’Rourke has been dropping somewhat in national polls after the emergence of high-profile candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

But O’Rourke – as well as Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro – can capitalize big time if they can survive until the Super Tuesday primaries in early March of 2020.

Their home states of Texas and California come with a large amount of delegates that can save a flailing campaign or pile on already-strong momentum.

And Sanders, who many Democrats believe was railroaded by the superdelegate system in 2016, is taking a different approach to 2020.

Sanders is now a top-tier candidate with massive fundraising and polling support. According to BuzzFeed News, Sanders’ campaign is actively courting superdelegates in the event of a contested convention.

“We’re taking superdelegates and superdelegates strategy seriously … hence having a team dedicated to delegates who can prepare for multiple convention scenarios,” said an aide to Sanders. “We will be reaching out to them over the course of the campaign. When the senator wins the nomination, he’s eager to work with them to support and unite all the party in the general and beyond.”

How each candidate performs at the debates, in the polls, and in fundraising is only half the battle. When the time comes for actual voting, having a solid delegate strategy could be what separates the next Democratic presidential nominee from the losers.