Top of page

Blue silk badge with gold lettering that says "delegate"

What’s a Delegate? Primary Sources and Primary Elections

Share this post:

As media coverage of Super Tuesday comes and goes, it’s likely that students will have heard terms like “delegate,” “delegate count,” or “delegate map.” Some students might understand what a delegate is. However, connecting the dots between results of state primaries and caucuses to a candidate’s earned delegates may feel complicated or abstract to many students.

Visually intriguing primary sources from the Library of Congress can help students slow down and make connections between delegates and the primary election process.

Try this quick primary source analysis activity as a bell ringer or introduction to a lesson about the delegate awarding process. Students use an object and four photographs to better visualize what a delegate is, the role a delegate serves, and how it connects to the primary election season.

First, invite students to examine this object from the Library’s printed ephemera collection. What do they observe?

Blue silk badge with gold lettering that says "delegate" and a small eagle figure pinned at the top of the badge
Blue silk badge with gold lettering

Prompt students with guiding questions as needed.

  • What colors do you see?
  • If there is text, what does it say?
  • Describe the shape and size of the object.
  • What other details do you notice?

After students examine the source, invite them to share some of their observations. Make note of commonly shared observations as well as unique impressions.

Now, ask students to reflect on the object.

  • What do students think this is?
  • What clues or prior knowledge informs their thinking?

Reveal or affirm information about the source: Some students may have determined that this object is a ribbon worn by a delegate to a political party’s national nominating convention. What do students wonder about delegates?

They might ask:

  • What do delegates do?
  • Who might get to be a delegate?
  • How does someone become a delegate?
  • Why would someone want to be a delegate?

Make note of those questions to return to later.

Now, show students these four images. Ask them to describe what they see in each image. What looks similar? What is different? How do these photographs contribute to an understanding of what a delegate is and the role of a delegate?

Black and white photograph of a large crowd of people in an indoor space. Some people in the crowd are holding banners with states names on them.
Delegates with state signs on the convention hall floor during the 1960 Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, California
Black and white photograph of an aerial view of a large crowd of people, some of whom are holding signs.
Aerial view of the floor of the International Amphitheatre showing delegates and state signs during the 1960 Republican National Convention, Chicago, Illinois
Color photograph of a speaker at a podium addressing a large crowd of people, most of whom hold signs that say "change"
Presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks to the audience at the Democratic National Convention, Denver, Colorado, August 25-28, 2008
A color photograph of a crowd of people holding signs in the air that say "Country First."
Republican National Convention, September 1-4, 2008. Republicans raise “Country First” signs as their leaders speak, St. Paul, Minnesota


Return to the questions asked earlier about delegates. Ask students what questions remain and what new questions they have. Students could research delegate selection in their state. They might be curious about how many delegates are at stake for each political party in their state’s primary election or caucus. State political party websites can be a good starting point to learn more.

How do you help students better understand what a delegate is and their role in the election process? Tell us in the comments!

Do you enjoy these posts? Subscribe! You’ll receive free teaching ideas and primary sources from the Library of Congress.



Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.