Sunday, April 19, 2015

Republican Proportionality Rules Changes for 2016, Part Three

The Myth of Winner-Take-All
FHQ spent considerable time during the back half of 2011 and into primary season in 2012 arguing/demonstrating that the then-new proportionality requirement the Republican National Committee had added to its delegate selection rules just would not and did not have the type of effect many anticipated. Most state Republican parties did not fundamentally alter the way in which they were allocating delegates to the national convention. Instead those state parties in most cases tweaked their earlier/traditional plans just enough to fit the new rules. The effects were minimal.

The 2016 presidential nomination cycle offers another national party change to the parameters of the proportionality requirement. FHQ detailed those changes in part one of this series and then examined the possible implications of those changes in part two.

Yet, FHQ fears that focusing on the proportionality window primes readers to think only about the implications of the rules changes on contests within that period on the calendar. There will be primaries and caucuses after March 14, 2016, and there is already much discussion/speculation about how state Republican parties in states with contests after that date are adapting their rules. Too often, the assumption is that states after that point are or will be winner-take-all.

There is a reason FHQ referred to the phase starting on March 15 as the post-proportionality window part of the calendar in part two. While there is a requirement that states' delegate selection/allocation plans fit the RNC definition of proportionality, there is no similar requirement for winner-take-all allocation after that point. States, as FHQ argued in 2011-12, are free to choose whichever delegate selection method they wish to institute if they conduct a primary or caucuses after that March 14. Again, this is the way the relationship worked between the national and state parties for the whole calendar before 2012. States were able to choose from an array of options, and the RNC was more than willing to let them. As one RNC official told FHQ in 2012, "Let them [the states] figure it out."

That did not produce a calendar full of winner-take-all primaries and caucuses, though. In fact, in 2008, the last cycle in which states had total freedom to set delegate selection rules of their choosing (without oversight and regulation from the RNC), there were only 11 truly winner-take-all contests (where even if a candidate won a plurality of the vote by just one vote, that candidate would receive all of that state's delegates).

Given the change for 2012 -- adding the proportionality requirement -- the assumption seems to have been, "Well, if you have the option to be winner-take-all, why not be winner-take-all?" Only states with contests after March 31 (in 2012) were not lining up to actually switch to or maintain a winner-take-all method of allocation. Outside of rules breakers Florida and Arizona -- both were winner-take-all prior to April 1 during the 2012 cycle -- there were only four truly winner-take-all primaries: Washington (DC), Delaware, New Jersey and Utah. That is four out of 22 states with contests after April 1. Three of those 22 states -- Connecticut, New York and Texas1 -- actually transitioned from winner-take-all or winner-take most plans in 2008 to more proportional methods in 2012.

...after the point on the calendar when the proportionality window had closed.

The question that emerges from those example is why. Why would a state, given the winner-take-all option, not take advantage of it or actually transition away from it? There are a lot of reasons. FHQ will focus on the two main factors though. One is state law. A number of states added proportionality requirements to state law after the Democratic National Committee began its blanket proportionality mandate in the 1980s. Many Democratic-controlled state legislatures (of which there were many more than today) simply added that to the state statutes regarding presidential primaries. Many of those laws continue to be in place now. And they affect the Republican nomination process too. State Republican parties have to follow those laws also, in other words. North Carolina is a good example of this.

The second main factor that contributes to Republicans maintaining some allocation method other than a winner-take-all one (even after the proportionality window closes) is that not all Republican state parties are homogenous. Often there are factions in state parties. And those factions do not necessarily want to see a presidential candidate more representative of another faction make off with all the delegates from that state. To their way of thinking, that does not represent the diversity of voices within the state's Republican Party or primary electorate. It isn't fair.

Another way of saying this is that politics, internal party politics, often plays a role in determining the  method of delegate allocation that a state party chooses. Back in the fall of 2014 when Michigan Republicans were eyeing a March 15 primary date, this very sort of discussion occurred. Some within the party argued that a winner-take-all primary would maximize the influence of the Michigan Republican primary. Others argued that it was more important for the primary to more accurately reflect the choices of the voters. They opted for a compromise winner-take-most plan that was a middle ground between the two camps.2

The bottom line here is that despite the fact that the winner-take-all option is available, most Republican state parties do not actually adopt such allocation plans. Well, they have not in the past. That may change in 2016. There may be a rush to winner-take-all methods by states with primaries or caucuses after March 14 on the 2016 presidential primary calendar. The reality, though, is that state laws will preclude that in some cases. In some others, a heterogeneous state party apparatus will prevent such a change. That negative inertia within the state party tends to maintain the traditional method of allocation. No consensus means no change. This is something FHQ often chalks up to "tradition" in this space. It is more nuanced than that.

If one wants to project which Republican state parties will have a winner-take-all method of allocation after March 15, then look to the states that have some history of winner-take-all allocation. Arizona and Florida have that tradition and have moved their primaries to points on the calendar after March 14 to avoid the super penalty and protect that winner-take-all tradition.3 Missouri Republicans are also positioned at a point on the calendar that will allow them to return to the winner-take-all method the party used prior to 2012.

There is talk that Ohio Republicans are considering a winner-take-all plan. That explains some of the reasoning behind a new bill to push the presidential primary in the Buckeye state back a week to March 15. However, the tradition in Ohio is winner-take-most and not winner-take-all. That traditional winner-take-most (or winner-take-all by congressional district) plan would not be compliant under the RNC rules on March 8.

For now, however, there is no group of winner-take-all states massing on the border between the proportionality phase of the calendar and the post-proportionality part of the calendar. That all states or most of them will be winner-take-all when the clock strikes midnight on March 15 is a myth. Some of them will be. Others, most perhaps, will not be if history is our guide. Some will be winner-take-all, others will be proportional, and yet others will be winner-take-most. There is a subtle difference between proportional allocation and winner-take-most plans that typically yields very little difference in terms of the actual allocation (if one was traded out for the other). Multiple candidates tend to emerge with delegates in each. However -- and this is the take home point -- there is a big difference between truly winner-take-all plans and everything else.4 That is where the disconnect is in the discussion. The line of demarcation tends to be between proportional and every other method. That lumps winner-take-most plans in with winner-take-all plans.

That practice is not helpful. Winner-take-most plans are not winner-take-all plans. There needs to be a stronger effort to parse out this distinction rather than assuming there is not one. A winner-take-most state like California, where more than one candidate can earn delegates, should not be confused with or lumped into a group of winner-take-all states like Arizona, where only one candidate -- the statewide winner -- is eligible to receive delegates. That that distinction is often ignored is hurting our ability to talk accurately about the Republican presidential nomination process and how it is likely to progress in 2016.

1 Texas Republicans adopted a proportional delegate allocation plan in 2011 when it was assumed the party would have a first Tuesday in March primary. Disputes over redistricting pushed the Texas primary back to May 29, but the allocation method stayed proportional.

2 Now that Michigan will hold a March 8 primary, the delegate allocation plan Wolverine state Republicans will have to use will have to be more proportional in nature to meet the RNC requirements.

3 Florida Republicans' tradition with a truly winner-take-all method of delegate allocation is a recent one. As FHQ has explained, Florida traditionally had a winner-take-all by congressional district method of delegate allocation. That carried over into the party's rules for both 2008 and 2012. However, since Florida Republicans were penalized by the RNC for holding a primary before the period allowed, that triggered a truly winner-take-all allocation method. It remains to be seen whether the Republican Party of Florida will change its rules to accommodate a truly winner-take-all allocation or stick with its traditional winner-take-most plan. But the party will have to change its rules in order to implement the former.

4 This is why Democrats tend to freak out when Republican-controlled blue (presidential) states consider changing from a winner-take-all distribution of electoral college votes to something else. It represents a big change (on the state level).

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