How previously won delegates are divided when candidates drop out of 2020 presidential race

WASHINGTON D.C. (WTVD) -- As more Democratic candidates end their presidential campaigns, many people are wondering what happens to the delegates those candidates have already won.

The answer: It's complicated.

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer suspended their Democratic presidential campaigns following the South Carolina primary.

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As of Monday evening, Buttigieg and Klobuchar are leaving 26 and seven delegates on the table respectively. Both endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden as their choice for the Democratic nominee.

The rules about what happens to those delegates varies by state, according to the North Carolina Democratic Party.

According to ABC News, pledged delegates in any state are not legally bound to vote for any candidate, but are presumed to be loyal to one candidate.

But here's where things get complicated. Candidates get delegates if they win at least 15 percent of the vote in a particular state or congressional district.

If a candidate drops out or suspends their campaign before delegates are chosen to fill the role, those previously won state delegates will be reallocated among candidates still in the race, based on the candidates' performance in each state.

However, district-level delegates--the majority of awarded delegates--are chosen faster than state delegates and do not get reallocated, even if a candidate drops out. These delegates then become free agents who can vote on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention, unlike superdelegates who cannot vote until the second ballot.

New Hampshire district-level delegates have already been selected, but none have been selected in Iowa or Nevada.

So when a candidate drops out of the race, they can either endorse another candidate and ask their delegates to support that candidate, or release their delegates, meaning they then become free agents. Since campaigns have a role in selecting delegates, they are generally considered loyal to the candidate they would have backed, and would be expected to listen to that candidate should they endorse another nominee.

However, because these delegates are real people, they are in no way obligated to follow anyone's directions, and other campaigns can and likely will try to convince them to back another campaign.

"Those are not re-allocated," a DNC official told ABC News. "They just become very popular."

Currently, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders narrowly leads the delegate count with 60 pledged delegates. Biden has 54, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has eight.

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In order to become the Democratic nominee, a candidate must win 1,991 of the party's delegates.
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