Republicans who blame party rules for a protracted primary race may be mistaken.
A rule requiring early-voting states to award delegates on a proportional basis “was the dumbest idea anybody ever had,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said Feb. 23 on Fox News. Christie, supporting former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, disparaged the rule because Republicans are running against President Barack Obama, who won’t face a primary challenge, and Republican presidential hopefuls will “beat each other up even longer.”
Yet in many states, including some of the 11 that vote on so-called Super Tuesday on March 6, candidates can amass large delegate advantages just by winning pluralities. The 11 states control 466 delegates; to win the nomination a candidate needs 1,144 delegates out of the 2,286 that will be awarded nationwide.
While the Republican National Committee requires that contests before April must award delegates proportionally, it gives the state parties a lot of leeway. A state party need only award some delegates proportionally to comply with the rule -- not all or even most of them. State parties may award most delegates on a winner-take-all basis to the top vote-getter.
Republicans “have a more decentralized approach, allowing states to choose what system is best within broad guidelines,” Anthony Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, said in a telephone interview.
“The idea that folks are leaning on this proportionality argument, that that’s what’s driving the length of this campaign, is just silly,” Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Davidson College in North Carolina and the author of a blog that analyzes the presidential nomination process, said in a telephone interview.
States that held contests in January and February “have got the same exact rules that they had in 2008,” Putnam said.
There are reasons unrelated to delegate allocation that help explain why Republicans didn’t settle on a nominee quickly.
The first three Republican contests produced three different winners -- Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum -- depriving any one candidate of the early momentum that might winnow the field. Also, the Super Tuesday contests are a month later than in 2008, when Senator John McCain of Arizona became the presumptive Republican nominee and forced Romney out of the race.
Super-PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions, are independently aiding candidates who are struggling to raise money, according to Corrado. Gingrich has won just one primary, yet his campaign has received at least $11 million from billionaire casino executive Sheldon Adelson and members of his family.
Also, some early-voting states, such as Iowa on Jan. 3, held non-binding contests that didn’t award delegates.
Of the 66 delegates at stake on Super Tuesday in Ohio -- a swing state won in the 2008 general election by Democrat Obama and in 2004 by Republican President George W. Bush -- 48 are available on a winner-take-all basis among the 16 congressional districts. Candidates get three delegates for each district they win, regardless of the winner’s vote percentage.
Just 15 delegates, less than one-fourth of Ohio’s allotment, will be distributed to candidates in proportion to the statewide vote. A candidate needs 20 percent of the vote to qualify for a share of those delegates; if the statewide winner takes more than a majority, he would win all 15 delegates. There are also three party officials who serve as delegates and aren’t required to commit in advance to any candidate.
The Ohio rules mean that, in theory, a candidate could amass 63 of the state’s delegates by winning at least 50 percent of the statewide vote plus each of the 16 congressional districts with a plurality.
While Santorum, the front-runner in Ohio polls, will appear on all ballots in Ohio for the state’s 15 at-large delegates, he didn’t file for delegates in three of the 16 congressional districts, Chris Maloney, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, said in a telephone interview. That means Santorum won’t be eligible for nine of the state’s 66 delegates.
Sucking for Oxygen
Santorum said that his failure in those three districts came when his campaign was “sucking through a swizzle stick for oxygen.”
“You’re not talking about a significant number of delegates one way or the other,” Santorum told reporters in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 17. “We feel confident that we’re going to do well here and pick up a very big haul of delegates.”
In Georgia, as in Ohio, more delegates will be awarded winner-take-all by district than proportionally. On Super Tuesday, 76 delegates are at stake, the most of any state up to that date. Polls show Gingrich, who represented Georgia in Congress, and Santorum leading Romney.
Georgia will award 42 delegates on a winner-take-all basis, three for each of its 14 congressional districts. The winner of each district will receive two delegates, the runner-up will receive one delegate, and the third-place finisher will be shut out. To win a share of Georgia’s 31 at-large delegates, a candidate needs 20 percent of the statewide vote.
A political committee backing Romney began airing anti-Gingrich television ads in Georgia more than six weeks ago, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising. A pro-Gingrich committee began airing an ad Feb. 28 that promotes his candidacy and attacks Romney.
Romney may sweep all 49 delegates in Virginia, another Super Tuesday state. His only opponent is U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who hasn’t won any primaries. Santorum and Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot.
Polls show Romney is favored to win the 33 delegates that are awarded winner-take-all among Virginia’s 11 congressional districts.
Romney would then beat Paul for Virginia’s 13 at-large delegates. Virginia rules call for those delegates to be awarded proportionally if no candidate wins a majority of the vote, and winner-take-all if the top vote-getter reaches a majority. Since there are only two candidates on the Virginia ballot, all 13 at-large delegates will go to the winner.