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The rocky road to the GOP nomination is paved with complex delegate math

February 6, 2016 at 1:55 PM EDT
Although primaries and caucuses are scheduled through June, presidential candidates in both parties may emerge with enough delegates to secure the nomination before then. But given the different sets of rules for choosing delegates in each state, a long road to the White House remains. NewsHour Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports.
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BY HANNAH YI

All eyes are on the New Hampshire primary election happening on Tuesday, but if a candidate wants to make it to the conventions this summer, their focus should be on where the campaign teams are headed next.

The road to the nomination is a bumpy ride with rules and intricate delegate math, which varies from state-to-state.

According to Elaine Kamarck, who has been on the Democratic Party’s Rules Committee for almost 20 years, the Democrats require every state to use pretty much the same rules for awarding delegates.

“We tell the states exactly how many delegates they can have and how many delegates each congressional district can have in the state,” Kamarck said. “We tell the states how they have to allocate delegates to presidential candidates. There’s a lot of central control from Washington on the Democratic state parties.”

That’s not so with the Republicans, who campaign under a mix of proportional and winner-take-all rules.

“There is a period of proportionality, in this case it’s the first 14 days in March, must be states dividing up their delegates proportionally,” said former General Counsel of the Republican National Committee Ben Ginsberg, who was an election lawyer for the campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. “But other than that, the states can do it pretty much any way they want to.”

Regardless of the party, understanding the delegate math game can be key to garnering the nomination.

In the fight for the 2008 Democratic nomination,  Hillary Clinton won only a handful more delegates than Barack Obama by winning big states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. But Obama, who campaigned hard in small states like Idaho and Kansas, won a larger surplus of delegates by attracting a larger proportion of voters.

NewsHour Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield went to New Hampshire to speak with officials from the campaigns of Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich to find out their strategies for the road beyond Tuesday’s primary.


Read the full transcript of this segment below:

JEFF GREENFIELD: This is where American politics lives — this week. The candidates…

MARCO RUBIO: I wanted you to meet my family because they’re going to be here for eight days.

JEFF GREENFIELD: The crowds…

JOHN KASICH: Reagan came here and he said it was morning in America.

JEFF GREENFIELD: The attacks and counter-attacks…

MARCO RUBIO: He views the constitution as an annoyance.

JEFF GREENFIELD: But while New Hampshire is obviously the center of the political universe this week, the real fight for the nomination will begin after Tuesday’s primary, when the survivors set out on a long, winding, four month-long road, whose incredibly complicated rules will in large measure determine who wins the nomination and how.

JEFF GREENFIELD: In fact, Republicans and Democrats travel two different roads, with rules that reflect the different core philosophies of the parties. Democrats require every state to use pretty much the same rules for awarding delegates.

ELAINE KAMARCK: Democrats are very, very regimented and very centrally ruled.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Author and Brookings Institution scholar Elaine Kamarck has been on the Democratic Party’s Rules Committee for almost twenty years.

ELAINE KAMARCK: So we tell the states exactly how many delegates they can have and how many delegates each congressional district can have in the state. We tell the states how they have to allocate delegates to presidential candidates. There’s a lot of central control from Washington on the Democratic state parties.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Democrats require every state to award delegates proportionally – in a percentage that more or less reflects their primary vote total.  They’ve long banned the “winner-take all” approach.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Republicans, by contrast, take a more “federalist” approach.

BEN GINSBERG: The theory behind the Republican delegate selection process is that each state has a great deal of authority and autonomy in choosing its own method.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Ben Ginsberg is former General Counsel of the Republican National Committee was an election lawyer for the campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

JEFF GREENFIELD: He says this year’s rules are a mixed bag of proportional and winner-take-all states.

BEN GINSBERG: There is a period of proportionality, in this case it’s the first 14 days in March, must be states dividing up their delegates proportionally. But other than that, the states can do it pretty much any way they want to.

JEFF GREENFIELD: If you want to see just how critical such rules can be, look back to 2008. When Republican John McCain won early winner-take-all primaries in big states like Florida, New York, and New Jersey, he got all the delegates, helping him secure the nomination in early March.

On the Democratic side, although Hillary Clinton won most of the big states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, because of proportional rules, she took home only a handful more delegates than Barack Obama did by finishing second.

Obama, on the other hand, campaigned hard in small states, like Idaho and Kansas, and won such a huge proportion of votes, he actually went home with a larger surplus of delegates than Clinton did in the big states.

ELAINE KAMARCK: If you don’t understand the delegate game, you can make a lot of mistakes. And the history of the presidential nomination process is just filled with examples where a campaign made the wrong call and it cost them momentum and eventually the nomination. So understanding this is the key to winning the nomination.

JEFF GREENFIELD: For 2016, it’s the Republican road, with its dizzying array of rules that requires close attention. Each flip of the calendar brings new states front and center, with their own rules about how delegates are won. So hang on; it can get very bumpy.

After New Hampshire, comes South Carolina. The winner there has won the Republican nomination in every campaign, except 2012.  Nevada votes three days later.

A key date is March 1st, when twelve states award 632 Republican delegates – a quarter of the total. Some call this “Super Tuesday.” It’s led by seven Southern states, including Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.

If you’re celebrity businessman Donald Trump, you approach these states the same way you do the others. Hold huge rallies and hope that your fame and your words turn supporters into voters–and voters into a big proportion of delegates.

Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign has a more specific approach to win his proportion of delegates: targeting the large percentage of Republican voters who call themselves “evangelical”—his base.

RICK TYLER: I don’t know who drew the map, but we thank them.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Rick Tyler, the Cruz campaign’s communication director, knows the evangelical makeup of these states by heart.

RICK TYLER: You go to Georgia, which has over 60%, then you have Tennessee — is over 70%. Alabama, over 70%. Mississippi, over 50%. Texas is over 50%. Oklahoma has over 70%. Arkansas has over 60%.  All those states are going to go on March 1, except for Mississippi, which will go on March 8, and the evangelical votes are just frontloaded in this campaign. Now, that’s an advantage to us, because we appeal to the evangelicals. We’ve already proved that in Iowa.

JEFF GREENFIELD: That constituency’s power in these early states explains why Senator Marco Rubio has been emphasizing his religious commitment.

MARCO RUBIO: Our rights do not come from our government. Our rights come from our Creator.

JEFF GREENFIELD: And if you’re Ohio Governor John Kasich, assuming you survive New Hampshire, you look at March 1st delegate opportunities outside the South: Minnesota, Massachusetts, Vermont—and you stake your prospects on a different premise.

JOHN KASICH: You’re going to think that I fell off a turnip truck or something on the way to politics. I haven’t been doing it for a while. Jeff, I think people are people. They have the same anxieties everywhere. I don’t tailor.

I’ve never changed my message from Iowa to here to South Carolina to Nevada. I think what’s happening is maybe there are politicians who are playing to certain factions. But I guess I’m a true believer. I think I can get every vote.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Candidates like Kasich can take heart from Republican rules that keep these early states proportional. Even without winning, they might pick up some delegates. That helped eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
Josh Putnam, a lecturer at the University of Georgia, has a blog—Frontloading HQ—which focuses on these rules.

JOSH PUTNAM: He wasn’t worried necessarily, or his campaign was not worried about winning in Mississippi or Alabama or Oklahoma. They just wanted to perform well enough to qualify for delegates and reduce the amount of advantage that his competitors – Santorum and Gingrich – got out of that.

JEFF GREENFIELD: But there’s a catch—in two dozen states throughout the Republican primary season, a candidate needs to reach a “threshold”—anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the vote—in order to qualify for any delegates at all.

JOSH PUTNAM: When people think proportional, or when I say proportional, I think what people think is, well if you win 40% of the vote, you get around 40% of the delegates out of that. And that’s simply not the case.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Putnam points to his own state of Georgia as an example of how some delegate-rich states have a hybrid system: part proportional, part winner-take-all.

JOSH PUTNAM: Georgia has a system where, you know, if you get above 20% of the vote statewide, you get a share of 31 at-large delegates.

JEFF GREENFIELD: When it comes to choosing those at-large delegates at the statewide level, it’s proportional. But at the congressional district level, it can be winner-take-all.

JOSH PUTNAM: But there’s still that battle to be waged in each of the 14 congressional districts of Georgia. But if you can win a majority in one of those congressional districts, you get all 3 delegates from that congressional district.

JEFF GREENFIELD: With the exception of Donald Trump, no serious campaign will ignore these complex rules, because they determine where resources should and shouldn’t be deployed.
Republican election lawyer Ben Ginsberg:

BEN GINSBERG: So take for example the March 1 states. There are 12 states that go. They’re dispersed around the country, although the concentration in the South. No one will be able to afford, under the federal campaign finance rules, the amount of money they have in the bank, to run 12 statewide races.

So in today’s world of modern campaigns, the smart campaigns have done a lot of list development work, micro-targeting work, to find out where their supporters are, who they are and how to reach them.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Five weeks after the New Hampshire tumult dies down, the Republican primary road takes a radical turn. After March 15th, states are free to allocate delegates pretty much any way they want: proportional, by congressional district, even winner-take-all, and woe be to a campaign that does not understand how important that turn is.

This year, there are only two early “winner take all” contests for Republicans -and they’re big ones — Ohio and Florida. Both vote on March 15th.  The only candidate who gets any delegates is the one who comes in first.

Other big states down the road like Pennsylvania–which has 71 delegates at stake on April 26th–use a hybrid system–part winner-take-all, part proportional.

Now, Pennsylvania Republicans are more moderate and more secular than Southern Republicans, but the conservative Cruz campaign intends to reach its voters there by using data analysis.

RICK TYLER: We actually can tell from analytical data that consumers offered to marketing companies all the time, what they like and how they want it to be communicated with.

So we actually don’t have one script for somebody who’s pro-life or one script for somebody who’s pro-gun. We have different scripts because people like to hear issues in different ways.

JEFF GREENFIELD: No one can say whether the road to the nomination will stretch all the way to the California primary in June. But this can be said: it’s far less colorful than the spectacle of a campaign rally and the clash of ideas and personalities in a heated debate.

But when the tumult and the shouting dies down, and the nominee emerges, these “rules” of the road often matter a whole lot more.

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