Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Myth of Republican Presidential Primary Proportionality

The one thing that gets FHQ all hot and bothered these days -- to the point that we really want to go all Joe Wilson on people -- is to hear or read pundits talking about what a game changer the Republican National Committee's new rules on delegate allocation will have on the 2012 nomination race. Look, the RNC and the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee made big steps toward not only allowing delegate selection rules changes outside of the Republican convention but in actually altering the rules in a way that curbs to some extent the latitude states have had in the past in determining their own method of allocation.

However, the most underreported aspect of the 2012 Republican nomination race -- something FHQ has said before but since there are so many people hanging around here post-Ames bears repeating -- is that the rules change will not fundamentally alter the accrual of delegates by candidates next year. The pre-April winner-take-all restrictions are being given way more weight than they deserve. And nothing epitomizes that more than Dana Houle's hypothetical run through a Romney-Perry nomination race where complete winner-take-all restrictions prior to April are imposed by the RNC.1

The only problem is that it is a myth.

Many are looking on the 2012 Republican nomination race as a repeat of the 2008 Democratic race. The 2012 Republican race may yet be a dragged out affair that stretches into May or June, and that may be because of the rules changes. But it will be more about the changes to the scheduling of primaries -- a more even dispersion of contests -- than it is about the shift in delegate allocation rules. Again, the impact is being exaggerated.

Part of the problem here is that the Republican National Committee has done a poor job at educating the public -- much less members of its own party or the media -- about the changes. People hear, "States can't have winner-take-all delegate allocation prior to April 1," and automatically flashback to the Democrats in 2008. That is the wrong mindset and highlights the poor job that both the national party and the media have done on this issue. It demonstrates the misunderstanding of the basic rules differences between the two parties. Seemingly the differences in delegate allocation are often portrayed as black and white -- proportional and winner-take-all -- when in reality the difference is between black and gray. The Republicans have allowed the states to set their own mode of allocation and many in the past -- without "restrictions" -- have opted for straight winner-take-all, hybrid systems or proportional allocation.

FHQ won't rehash the arguments we have made in the past. This time we will offer up an example of what the rules changes might entail. Let's look at Michigan. The Michigan Republican Party's State Policy Committee recently recommended that the Great Lakes state presidential primary be held sometime during a February 28-March 6 window next year. Those recommendations were passed this past weekend by the full State Committee and included a consensus (on the State Policy Committee) to repeat the delegate allocation rules from 2008. Those rules in 2008 yielded an allocation of 23 delegates for Mitt Romney, 6 for John McCain and 1 for Mike Huckabee. Romney captured just under 39% of the vote in the January 15 Michigan primary, but ended up with 77% of the delegates from the state. No, that isn't directly winner-take-all, but it does provide one candidate with a healthy margin in the delegate count coming out of the state.

And Michigan is going to use the same method in 2012: allocating its three delegates per each congressional district on a winner-take-all basis and the remaining at-large delegates proportionally. Candidates would have to win 15% of the vote to win any delegates; something that could be set as high as 20% according to the rules. So, for the record, 42 of the 59 delegates (79% of the state's delegate total) are still allocated on a winner-take-all basis. And seven three of the remaining delegates are the Republicans' version of superdelegates: They are free to endorse who they please. That leaves just the ten at-large delegates -- each state has ten -- plus the four bonus delegates to be allocated proportionally.2

Instead of proving to be a drag on Perry's chances, this may, in fact, help him out if other states follow Michigan's lead. Perry would not have jumped into the race if he didn't see a path and that path -- best case scenario -- sees victory in Iowa, a least second in New Hampshire, a win in South Carolina, being in the top two in Florida. That omits Nevada, Arizona and Michigan. Throw them to Romney if you will, but after those potential contests comes a southern swing on Super Tuesday and the following week (March 6-13). There is a reason the Romney campaign was pushing for an earlier Utah primary for Super Tuesday. It wasn't to ward off of Huntsman, it was to provide some delegates for the former Massachusetts governor in an otherwise tough couple of weeks for the Romney campaign from a delegates perspective. Does that bring out the death knell for the Romney campaign. Perhaps. He will have plenty of money, but often the writing can be on the wall with as few as 30% of the total national delegates allocated -- depending on the scenario. Regardless, that southern swing would at the worst -- assuming the Perry candidacy takes off -- give Perry the upper hand and the momentum when the contests turn elsewhere.

Look, Perry may fall flat in the next few weeks and he may not. But he will not fail if he makes it to 2012 because of the incorrect perception of the RNC rules regarding delegate allocation. The perception that the GOP has adopted Democratic-style, straight proportional allocation for any contest occurring before April 1 is a figment of everyone's imagination.

UPDATE: Regular FHQ reader, Matt Seyfang (@mseyfang), points out that Michigan is only one state and may not represent the true tenor of the rules changes. Too true. In order to avoid any cherrypicking charges, let's look at this from a slightly different angle. Compared to the 2008 rules, which states will have to make changes to their Republican delegate allocation? As of now, given the information we have, there are 16 pre-April primary states.3 Of those 16 states, seven will have to make some changes to their delegate allocation rules. Four -- South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma -- already have rules accounting for allocating both congressional district delegates and statewide, at-large delegates. In other words, these states weren't and aren't straight winner-take-all states. Those four states have to change the mode in which the statewide, at-large delegates are allocated. Recall, that the at-large delegates are only a sliver of any state's overall delegate total. When and if these states alter their rules to comply with the RNC mandates, it won't represent all that fundamental a change to the accumulation of delegates relative to 2008. The remaining three states -- Vermont, Virginia and Arizona -- all have straight winner-take-all allocation rules and have a slightly greater chance of seeing a difference in 2012 allocation versus 2008. But again, the requirement does not call for a huge change. Those states, as the ones above, will only have to alter the way in which those at-large, statewide delegates are allocated.

FHQ should also note that, we won't have a firm grasp on the plans in each state until after the October 1 RNC deadline for informing the RNC of state-level plans for delegate allocation. That said, the expectation here is that state Republican Parties will take the easiest route toward compliance on these delegate allocation rules. State parties won't, then, fundamentally rewrite their past rules, but only tweak them to meet the new guidelines.

And that will yield a change from 2008 potentially, but not nearly the type of change in delegate allocation that is being implied by pundits and others.

NOTE: Delegate allocation rules come via The Green Papers.

1 Or David Chalian citing the impact of the new winner-take-all restrictions in a segment on the GOP race on The PBS NewsHour this evening. He repeats the mistake here.

2 The "bonus" delegates, according to Rule 13.5 of the 2008 Rules of the Republican Party, are those added to a state's total for a state having voted for the Republican presidential candidate in the previous cycle, having Republican governors, having Republican majorities in the state legislature, etc. Those additional delegates are added to a state's at-large total and are allocated proportionally prior to April 1 and at the state's discretion thereafter.

3 Caucus states are harder to deal with. Most don't typically allocate any delegates at the precinct caucus stage. The Nevada GOP has decided to do so in 2012 and to allocated those delegates proportionally.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is the way I think most states are going to try to do it. WTA for CD.Bonus delegates to the statewide winner and allocating at-large delegates proportionally. Also I think more states might adopt the Texas rules. Proportional at less than 50% and WTA at 50% or above.