Friday, March 11, 2016

2016 vs. 2012 and the Republican Delegate Count

Now that the Republican presidential primary process has entered March and hit hyperdrive, many are beginning to more closely examine the rules changes the Republican National Committee (and the Republican National Convention in Tampa) made for the 2016 cycle. At the core of that is a simple question: How have the rules impacted the progress of the race?

The answer to that simple question, however, is not so simple. Some have blamed the proportionality requirement at the beginning of the March part of the primary calendar. Others have pointed the finger at the newly compressed 2016 primary calendar for the results in the contests to date. The problem is that both of those explanations miss the mark by failing to take a deeper look at what has really changed with the rules for 2016 and how that has affected the actual delegate count. Both arguments basically hide behind the complexity of both changes without really offering an adequate answer to the original question.

There are at least two other explanations that better explain the differences in the delegate counts at similar points in the 2012 and 2016 cycles.

1) Texas
The Texas primary -- and its 155 delegates -- were in May in 2012. Think about that. That is 155 delegates that were virtually at the end of the 2012 process. In fact, it was those Texas delegates that pushed Mitt Romney past the 1144 delegates he needed to clinch the Republican nomination four years ago.

But the Texas primary was only scheduled for May because a redistricting dispute in the courts forced its delay. Originally, it was planned -- by state law -- for the first Tuesday in March. Just like this cycle (and every other one from 2008 back to 1988).1

With Texas back to normal in March for the 2016 cycle, those 155 delegates -- 12.5% of the number of delegates required to clinch the nomination -- ended up at a considerably earlier point on the calendar than had been the case since the 1988 Southern Super Tuesday. Not only was the Texas primary earlier for 2016, but the Lone Star state had a favorite son vying for the nomination. Without those 104 delegates, that favorite son -- Ted Cruz -- would not be in nearly the favorable position in the delegate count as he is at this point in early March on the calendar.

Cruz would lose 56 delegates to Donald Trump. That is the surplus he had over the real estate tycoon in the Texas delegate count. Furthermore, he would lose the 101 delegate advantage he had over Marco Rubio leaving Texas. Without an early Texas primary win, Cruz would not be as close to Trump in the delegate count and would be closer to Rubio and third place in the delegate count than Trump in first. In other words, Cruz would look a lot more like Gingrich and Santorum did relative to Romney in 2012.

It just cannot be understated how important that Texas win was for Cruz. And no, the position of the Texas primary on the 2016 calendar had nothing to do with the Republican rules changes in Tampa and thereafter.

2) Unbound delegates
While the Texas factor is not a rules-based change, there is one rules change that to this point has taken a back seat to other explanations; those arguing that the course of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination race is a function of proportional rules and/or a compressed calendar. The focus on those two changes is mostly misguided as the national party rules changes -- particularly with regard to proportional delegate allocation -- did not really yield that much change in the state-level rules. It has not to this point anyway.

The one thing that many are missing that has actually more directly affected (made things appear more competitive) the current delegate count relative to the one four years ago, is the new binding requirement the RNC instituted for the 2016 cycle. Gone is the fraction of automatic delegates who were more like superdelegates four years ago. Gone are the fantasy delegates from all those non-binding caucuses. Those delegates are mostly bound or will be bound in 2016. Iowa, Minnesota and Maine (and eventually Washington and Missouri) were all non-binding in 2012. Not in 2016. In the case of those first three, the delegates were allocated proportionally with either no or a very low threshold. That is making the delegate count more competitive. Delegates were allocated to a larger number of candidates in 2016 rather than being unbound as they were in 2012.

That is not necessarily affecting the gap between candidates in the current delegate count, but it is providing more delegates to more candidates instead of no candidates.

What effect have those two changes had on the delegate count cycle over cycle from 2012 to 2016?

If one backs out the Texas delegates and the unbound delegates (based on the formerly non-binding caucus state that have conducted caucuses at this time) from the 2016 count, 2016 looks even more like 2012. Cruz is, perhaps, a stronger version of Santorum (each won/has won multiple states) and Rubio is a weaker Gingrich (still each has/had two wins). Kasich stands in as Ron Paul; not winning contests, but winning delegates. Here is what that comparison looks like:

2016 (25 states)
Trump: 391
Cruz: 221
Rubio: 126
Kasich: 51
Unbound: 17

2012 (26 binding states, 32 total)
Romney: 454 R
Santorum: 172 S
Gingrich: 138 G
Paul: 27 P
Unbound/Unpledged: 2922

Again, there has been no accounting for the calendar changes -- other than a non-rules-based shift of the Texas primary -- or proportionality rules in this. In this exercise, the Texas delegates have been removed from the 2016 total as have the formerly unbound delegates in now-binding Iowa, Maine and Minnesota. The picture that leaves is one where the delegate leaders are within about 50 delegates of each other. Perhaps that is attributable to a newly compressed calendar and/or (an admittedly smaller) proportionality window in 2016. But a strong argument could also be made that the differences in the leaders' totals at similar points on the calendars in 2012 and 2016 is explained by a weaker frontrunner in 2016 than in 2012. That seems to be demonstrated by what looks like a basically 50 delegate shift between first and second place in 2012 versus 2016.

This is a surface level exercise, but it is quite suggestive.

Blame the rules?

Not really. The rules in 2016 -- as has been the case for the rules of the Republican process in the past -- are still designed to aid frontrunners/winners; to ease the way to a presumptive nominee. That is still happening.

The bottom line is that the rules changes have had an effect, but not in the way that many think. Maybe the finger should be pointed not at the compressed calendar and the proportional rules, but somewhere else instead.

1 Texas did shift from the second week in March to the first week in March in its law ahead of the 2004 cycle, but that change was delayed until 2008. From 1988-2004, then, Texas was on the second week in March on the calendar.

2 That this number is so much higher is a function of there being six more contests in 2012 than in 2016. Those non-binding contests drove up the total number of delegates.

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