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Colorado will award two prizes from the Democratic presidential primary on Super Tuesday, and it’s possible that two different candidates could claim victory as the field narrows.

The potential for a split jackpot is shaping how the White House hopefuls are strategizing ahead of the state’s first mail-ballot presidential primary Tuesday. And even though both rewards offer benefits, in the end, one matters more.

MORE: Colorado Democratic primary delegate count: A look at who won the state’s 67 delegates

The Democratic candidate who finishes first in the statewide popular vote on Super Tuesday claims marquee headlines as the winner of Colorado. The Associated Press — and most national TV networks — will declare the state’s winner from the overall vote, a reward that would give candidates needed energy and possibly a fundraising boost. 

The more important prize, however, is a collection of delegates to the national party convention. The true winner is the candidate who gets most of the 67 delegates at stake.

If it’s a runaway victory, the same candidate probably would win the statewide popular vote and the most delegates. But if it’s close, two candidates could lay claim to the “winner” titles.

MORE: With Bernie Sanders surging, Colorado could become a proving ground for his lagging rivals

Colorado appears to favor Bernie Sanders, but the other contenders in the race are looking to the state as a potential bulwark to blunt his momentum in the delegate count.

The departure of three candidates — Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer — ahead of Colorado’s primary makes a tighter contest more likely, as a poll last week showed the crowded field had splintered primary voters.

The winner of the state’s popular vote may become clear Tuesday, depending on how fast counties count ballots and on the margin between the candidates. But as The Colorado Sun first reported in February, the delegate winner won’t become clear until at least Wednesday — if not weeks later.

“Colorado almost never has all the results on election night,” said state Democratic Party Chairwoman Morgan Carroll. “We expect it, but in reality, every election they are still counting.”

MORE: Why we won’t know which Democratic presidential candidate won Colorado on Super Tuesday

The reason is embedded in how Colorado awards delegates. The statewide popular vote will determine how 23 delegates are assigned to the candidates. But the remaining 44 — or roughly two-thirds of the state’s total — are assigned by congressional district.

The 1st District based in Denver and the 2nd District based in Boulder will offer the most at nine each. The other five districts will award between four and six delegates.

To qualify for delegates at either level, the candidates need to reach 15% — without rounding — support. (On the Republican side, the threshold is 20% support in Colorado for any challengers to President Donald Trump to win delegates.)

In a poll from Magellan Strategies, the only major poll conducted before Colorado’s primary vote, only Sanders met the statewide threshold.

Elizabeth Warren finished a fraction short, and the other candidates — including former Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Tulsi Gabbard — were well below the level of viability. It remains unclear how each remaining candidate will do at the congressional district level.

A significant portion of voters remained undecided in the days before the vote, and how the race reshuffles after the departure of three candidates could realign the results.

But more than 500,000 voters — including those unaffiliated with a party — cast ballots in the Democratic primary before the field narrowed to five candidates. A vote for a candidate not currently seeking the nomination will not count when it comes to apportioning delegates, state election and Democratic Party officials confirmed.

How the candidates are strategizing their approach to Colorado

Johnny Papagiannis, the deputy organizing director in Colorado for Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign, talks to volunteers Jan. 25, 2020, at the field office on South Broadway in Denver. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The candidates remaining in the race know what it takes to win delegates in Colorado.

Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, is using his financial muscle to open campaign offices in each congressional district. The team also hired dozens of staffers who went door-to-door with volunteers to turn out their supporters.

“Mike Bloomberg is building a strategic campaign operation targeting Democratic and unaffiliated voters to meet this 15% threshold and win delegates,” Ray Rivera, a senior campaign adviser, wrote in a February memo. “That’s why we opened campaign offices in every single congressional district in Colorado.”

The Sanders campaign is far more modest, with a limited paid staff and a single campaign hub in Denver. But it boasts a massive volunteer network and dedicated supporters who helped him win the state in the 2016 caucuses.

Supporters wait for Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to take the stage during a political rally at the Colorado Convention Center on Feb. 16, 2020. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

His campaign team announced Monday that it collectively knocked on 21,800 doors over the weekend. “Across Colorado our grassroots supporters are fired up and are putting in the hard work to elect Bernie Sanders,” said Pilar Chapa, the Colorado state director, in a statement.

MORE: How Bernie Sanders became the favorite in Colorado: A look inside the campaign

Warren’s team exuded confidence in its Super Tuesday position, saying internal projections showed the candidate reaching the threshold level in most of the congressional districts. It’s not clear if Colorado is among those identified by the campaign because a spokeswoman declined to respond to questions.

“The road to the Democratic nomination is not paved with statewide winner-take-all victories,” Warren campaign manager Roger Lau wrote in a memo. “… This is a district-by-district contest for pledged delegates awarded proportionally.”

Biden’s team is not prioritizing Colorado. He is the only candidate to not host a public event in the state ahead of the vote, and Colorado did not make the list of Super Tuesday states where his campaign invested in TV advertising. Instead, the campaign is relying on endorsements from party leaders and the good will of voters who supported Biden eight years ago when his name appeared next to President Barack Obama on a reelection ballot.

A forecast for how Colorado will land on Super Tuesday

The calculation for delegates on the Democratic side is straightforward and based on a worksheet available to all the campaigns. All the candidates who meet the threshold will win a proportional amount of the delegates available at that level. 

Democrats decided to split delegates between the statewide popular vote and congressional districts to provide fairer representation. But the district-level formula favors areas with higher concentrations of Democratic votes.

“The idea that the Eastern Plains may well be valuing something different in a candidate than Boulder was at least a theoretical possibility that made us decide to use the congressional level results,” said Carroll, the state party chairwoman.

The Democratic Party will release the preliminary delegate estimates for each candidate on its website Wednesday morning and update them regularly as more ballots are counted. The election totals are not final until weeks later, so the numbers may shift, particularly if a candidate is near the 15% threshold.

The simulations run by FiveThirtyEight for Colorado’s primary suggest Sanders will win both the popular vote and the most delegates. The models count Sanders’ delegates between 21 and 41 of the 67 available, with the average he’s expected to win in the middle.

Warren and Biden are projected to collect a dozen delegates each on average, and the website’s models show Bloomberg at nine delegates. 

But the delegate forecast is speculative at best — even more so than in other states — because of the lack of polling in Colorado. The numbers are based on two recent surveys, which included three candidates who are no longer running and two polls that are more than six months old.

U.S Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat running in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, greets voters after an event in northeast Denver on Dec. 6, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The candidates who left the race before Super Tuesday are not eligible for at-large delegates assigned by the statewide vote. But if they didn’t withdrawal as candidate, they can still receive delegates at the congressional district level. Those delegates are then free to support whomever they want at the national convention, according to state party officials.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg filed paperwork to withdrawal, the secretary of state announced Tuesday, so their votes will not be counted.

If a candidate who wins delegates in Colorado exits the race before the congressional district and state conventions in mid-April, the math is recalculated for at-large delegates, but not at the congressional level.

If a candidate holding Colorado delegates drops out after that point, party rules stipulate that the delegates are able to pick a new favorite.

The party allows delegates who are selected to represent a certain candidate to change their preference and no longer follow the will of Colorado voters. But the rules say they “shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments (of those) who elected them,” said Chairwoman Morgan Carroll — and if they break ranks, they could be replaced by an alternate to preserve the state’s original vote.

Updated 10:40 a.m. March 3, 2020: This story was updated to include new information from the secretary of state that Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg filed paperwork to withdraw their candidacies in Colorado.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.