Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Massachusetts GOP Rules Change Adds an Element of Winner-Take-All to 2020 Delegate Allocation

The Massachusetts Republican Party has adopted changes to its method of allocating national convention delegates for the 2020 cycle according to Stephanie Murray at Politico. New in 2020 will be a winner-take-all trigger that will award all of the Republican delegates in the Bay state to any candidate who receives a majority of the vote in the Super Tuesday Massachusetts primary.

While that addition is not without import, one should take a step back before ramming it into the "change the rules to help Trump" narrative. On the surface, adding a winner-take-all trigger would theoretically benefit a popular (within party) incumbent president. And that is more true in light of the facts (at this time) that President Trump is likely to face only token opposition and from a very limited number of candidates. The closer the number of challengers is to one, the greater the chances are that Trump hits the winner-take-all trigger.

That sounds like advantage Trump, right?

Yes, but as is often the case with respect to rules changes, there is a bit of context that is missing from the Politico piece.

First, Murray overstates the extent of the change via a misleading description attributed to Dean Cavaretta, Trump's 2016 Massachusetts state director. The rules change does not "eliminate" the traditional proportional allocation of delegates in Massachusetts. Instead, it makes the overall allocation conditional on the results. If no candidate receives a majority, then the allocation is proportional among all qualifying candidates. However, if one candidate clears the majority threshold then a winner-take-all allocation is triggered.

And that reality neatly dovetails with another issue in the Politico story: the replication of these winner-take-all triggers in other states. But here is the thing: Massachusetts is actually joining other early calendar states on the Republican side in using a conditional trigger in the allocation process. FHQ says "early" because under the rules of the Republican party for 2020, states with delegate selection events prior to March 15 have to meet the RNC definition of proportional in the state-level allocation rules. But while states have to maintain some measure of proportional allocation, winner-take-all triggers are allowed and can be set as low as 50 percent. This is what Massachusetts has done with its rules change for 2020. The party has added a trigger.

But again, that addition brings the Massachusetts Republican delegate allocation process in line with other early states. Of the eleven Super Tuesday states with defined allocation rules in 2016, Massachusetts was one of just three to lack a winner-take-all trigger. And six of the remaining eight states set a winner-take-all trigger of 50 percent. [The other two had much higher winner-take-all thresholds.]

The question, then, is not really whether other states will replicate the Massachusetts Republican strategy, but rather, whether the small number of states without those triggers will add them and join the majority of states that had them as part of their rules before Trump even came down the escalator in June 2015.

The trigger addition won the headlines, but the real essence of this change is geared toward the delegate selection process. It is on that front that the Massachusetts Republican Party has had some issues over at least the last two presidential nomination cycles, issues this change in allocation method indirectly impacts.

The 2016 RNC Rules Committee meeting that preceded the national convention in Cleveland saw a showdown over the binding of delegates (based on the results of primaries and caucuses). During the 2016 nomination process a vocal minority of activists argued against binding based on the fact that delegates elected/selected may have other allegiances. In other words, the two processes -- allocation and selection -- could point in different directions. Trump could overwhelmingly win a Massachusetts primary and be allocated a set number of delegate slots, but Cruz candidates for delegates in the Bay state could be selected to fill some of those slots. As the argument went, those Cruz-sympathetic delegates could not, under the rules, be forced to vote for Trump at the convention.

However, that argument lost at the 2016 Republican National Convention. But it was spurred, in part, by things that had happened in Massachusetts in 2012 and 2016. In 2012, it was Ron Paul delegate candidates in Massachusetts who were selected to Romney-won slots from the Super Tuesday Massachusetts primary. They later were disqualified. And the Ted Cruz campaign attempted to follow the Paul plan in Massachusetts (and elsewhere) in 2016.

But those problems lie in the selection process, not the allocation process.

[UPDATED, 5/7/19 1:45pm]

And the Massachusetts Republican Party addressed that as well. In lieu of the problematic caucus/convention process, the party has shifted the delegate selection responsibility to other entities. Under the new plan, the state party chair would select one-third of the 27 congressional district delegates, the state committee would select another third of the congressional district delegates and the qualifying presidential candidates would select the remaining third of the congressional district delegates and the 11 at-large delegates.

This is the bigger change. This is the change that most benefits Trump and especially if the president clears the 50 percent winner-take-all threshold. There is far less room for the sorts of shenanigans that  hampered the party in its delegate selection process each of the last two cycles.

Thanks to Evan Lips, Communications Director at the Massachusetts Republican Party for passing along the plan adopted last week by the party's State Committee.

Quick glance at the delegate allocation process:

  • The plan confirms that the baseline allocation is proportional (as it has typically been in Massachusetts). 
  • To qualify for delegates, a candidate must win at least 20 percent of the vote. That is an increase over the 5 percent qualifying threshold the party used in 2016. It is also the maximum qualifying threshold allowed under RNC rules for 2020. That means that the protest vote would have to be quite large against an incumbent president running for renomination for any challenger to receive delegates under this plan. 
  • Again, as stated above, if a candidate receives a majority of more of the vote in the Massachusetts Republican presidential primary, then that candidate is allocated all of the state's delegates. 
  • There is no backdoor to a winner-take-all allocation. This can in some states happen if a candidate is the only candidate to clear the qualifying threshold but not the winner-take-all threshold. Hypothetically, for example, if Trump again received 49 percent of the vote in the Massachusetts primary (as he did in 2016), then under the 2020 Massachusetts Republican rules, at least the runner-up would receive some delegates even if that runner-up received less than 20 percent of the vote. Again, using the 2016 results but 2020 rules, Kasich would have received a share of the delegates (split with Trump) even though he only got 18 percent of the vote in the primary. Rubio, less than a thousand votes behind Kasich would be locked out of the allocation. 

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