Illustration by Victor Kerlow
Republican Rules Are Not to Blame for Primary War
Republican Party leaders increasingly express concern that their elongated presidential primary process will damage the party’s eventual nominee.
Prior to the 2012 campaign, the Republican National Committee made changes to the party’s delegate selection and allocation rules. The move had two main effects. First, it stretched the primary calendar. Many states delayed their primaries, but others held fast to early dates. The process actually began earlier this year than in 2008. Second, the committee arranged for those delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses held prior to April 1 to be awarded proportionally, rather than on a winner-take-all basis.
Some Republicans complain that the new rules have led to an internecine war of attrition rather than a unified campaign against President Barack Obama. The proportional delegate model is “the dumbest idea anybody ever had,” said Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. “You’re running against an incumbent president who will not have a primary, so your idea is make ours longer so we can beat each other up longer?” Senator John McCain of Arizona similarly blamed Republican front-runner Mitt Romney’s troubles in clinching the nomination partly on “the proportional distribution of the delegates.”
Yet the notion that the delegate rule changes have dragged out the primary -- and dragged down Romney -- is a myth. After all, the Democratic Party has been using proportional allocation since the mid-1980s without apparent catastrophes. Our calculations show that the Republicans’ new proportionality rule has actually accelerated this year’s primary, not slowed it.
Variety of Methods
The Republican Party has traditionally allowed states to allocate delegates in a variety of ways. Some states used a proportional method, others used winner-take-all, still others used hybrids that fell between those two poles. In 2008, the nearly 40 Republican primary states were split about evenly among the three methods.
The 2012 campaign is essentially no different. The rules do not mandate strict proportionality but allow a mix of systems. For example, states can proportionally allocate their at-large delegates while allocating their congressional district delegates on a winner-take-all basis, according to the vote within each district. States can also use a conditional winner- take-all rule: If a candidate receives the majority of the vote statewide, then that candidate is awarded all of a state’s delegates or all of the at-large delegates.
As a result, differences between the 2008 and 2012 rules are not drastic. Consider Georgia. In the 2008 Republican primary, the state allocated its at-large delegates on a winner- take-all basis. The candidate who won the most votes in a congressional district won all of that district’s delegates. But the candidate who won the most votes statewide received all of Georgia’s at-large delegates.
In 2012, the Georgia Republican Party changed the allocation of its at-large delegates from winner-take-all to proportional (although candidates needed at least 20 percent of the statewide vote to be eligible for at-large delegates). If a candidate received the majority of the vote in a congressional district, that candidate was entitled to all three district delegates. If the winning candidate received only a plurality of votes in the district, he was awarded two delegates and the runner-up in the district vote received one. Both the old rules and the new could produce a variety of outcomes depending on how votes were cast. But nothing about the 2012 rules dictated a more fractured apportionment of delegates than in 2008.
To gauge the effect of the 2012 rules, we calculated what the 2012 delegate count would be so far using the 2008 delegate rules. Any such simulation rests on the tenuous assumption that all other things about the process are equal -- an obvious drawback. Still, the results are instructive.
Using the 2008 rules, we found, would have produced a slightly slower primary process. What’s more, Romney above all should be grateful for the change. Far from elevating the current front-runner, the 2008 rules would have reduced his current delegate count by 56. Under the old rules, Newt Gingrich would have earned 5 fewer delegates and Ron Paul 8 fewer. Rick Santorum would have come out with 15 more delegates.
Even these differences are not entirely due to the shift toward proportionality. They arise in part because the Nevada caucuses were not considered binding in 2008. Proportionality changes don’t factor into the 2012 results until Super Tuesday, and even then, the effects were not large. Of the 56 delegates Romney would lose under the 2008 rules, only 32 of them are due to the 2012 proportionality requirement. The remainder are delegates that would be unbound under the 2008 rules.
If anything is extending the Republican nomination process, it’s the new, longer primary calendar. In 2008, more than half of the delegates had been awarded by the first week in February. In 2012, the halfway point won’t arrive until this weekend’s Louisiana primary.
“By making the second phase of the nominating process proportional, you reduce the possibility that any candidate in any one primary in any one state can deliver a knockout blow that early in the process and end the process prematurely,” said John Ryder, a Republican national committeeman from Tennessee. Ryder may be wrong that proportionality is extending the process. But he certainly seems right about the lack of a knockout blow. It appears the 2012 Republican primary is working exactly as designed. The real problem might be that it’s working far too well.
(Josh Putnam is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Davidson College who blogs at Frontloading HQ. John Sides is associate professor of political science at George Washington University and a co-founder of, and contributor to, the Monkey Cage blog.)
Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.
To contact the writers of this article: Josh Putnam at firstname.lastname@example.org or 704.894.2034; John Sides at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bloomberg moderates all comments. Comments that are abusive or off-topic will not be posted to the site. Excessively long comments may be moderated as well. Bloomberg cannot facilitate requests to remove comments or explain individual moderation decisions.