One little-noticed fact of the high-profile New Hampshire primary is that it allocated only twelve delegates, half of its original total. The reason? Because it is being penalized, as will upcoming primaries in South Carolina and Florida, by the Republican National Committee for holding its primary before March.
In preparation for this election cycle the RNC adopted a set of rules designed to slow the mad rush to move primaries ever earlier. States were penalized for holding their primary before March, and required to allocate at least some of their delegates proportionally if they held their primary before April.
New Hampshire was happy to accept the penalty as the price of retaining its position as the nation’s first primary. Since New Hampshire is a small state that never had too many delegates anyway, its power is determined by the media’s frenzied coverage, which was not dimmed by its even smaller than usual number of delegates.
The proportional allocation element of the RNC’s rules that was designed for the same purpose as penalizing states that push their primary way up—to slow a frontrunner’s steamroll—will affect a greater number of states. (None of these rules apply to caucuses.) Thirty-one states (including the US Virgin Islands, but not including Washington, DC) will hold a Republican nomination contest before April 1. Of these, thirteen are caucuses. The remaining eighteen primaries are subject to the RNC’s proportional allocation requirements. However, some of the states, such as Arizona and Florida, which are losing half their delegates for voting before March, are planning to allocate all their delegates to the winner. Since they are unlikely to be punished a second time and lose all their delegates, they figure they are exempted from the proportional allocation requirement. South Carolina is, in fact, exempted—although it is having its delegates’ vote at the RNC halved—so it is using its traditional winner-take-all system as well.
The idea, according to David Norcross, a RNC member who helped draft the rules, is to prevent someone from speeding through a series of early primary wins and racking up a majority of delegates too quickly. In 2008 Norcross supported Mitt Romney, and he thinks that Romney would have made a stronger candidate in the general election that John McCain. He blames the early winner-take-all states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina for catapulting McCain to the nomination. Just generally slowing the process down would be better, regardless of who benefits, says Norcross.
“If we spread it out it would give a candidate an opportunity to stumble and recover or come in late and raise money and be viable, and not just have it be all over in February,” says Norcross. “Proportional allocation slows it down. That was the purpose: to try to convince states that they ought to wait until at least March or April. If they didn’t the side effect would be to slow down the process of attaining a winner.”
The number of delegates each state receives varies, depending on two factors: how many people live there and how Republican they are. Each Congressional district is worth three delegates. So that corresponds to population. Then states get bonuses of at-large delegates for having a Republican governor, senator, a Republican majority in a house of the state’s legislature, and whether the state was carried by the last Republican presidential nominee. You can see a table of each state’s delegate allotment here. Republican National Committee members are also delegates, but some of them are bound by state rules to vote for the state’s winner, unlike the famous super-delegates of the Democratic National Committee.
The details of proportional allocation are left up to the states. Generally, states have chosen to allocate the at-large delegates to the plurality winner of the statewide primary vote. Some allocate those proportionally, but often with the caveat that if the statewide winner attains an actual majority—meaning more than 50 percent of the statewide vote, not just more than any of his opponents—then he wins all the at-large delegates. Some states also require a minimum threshold to get a share of the proportionally allocated delegates. That threshold is often 20 percent, but in New Hampshire it is only 10 percent. Therefore Jon Huntsman, who placed third with 17 percent of the vote, won two delegates. Once you’ve dropped the candidates who failed to meet the threshold, the ones who met it end up with a greater proportion of delegates than their actual share of the vote. You can look at a full breakdown of each state’s plans to apportion its delegates here.
Most states allocate the Congressional delegates to the winner of the vote in their respective Congressional districts. In a large state such as Ohio that means an awful lot of delegates will be awarded to a candidate who wins a plurality that is roughly evenly distributed across the state. In other words, if Mitt Romney carried every Congressional district in Ohio with 35 percent of the vote, he would win all the Congressional delegates—forty-eight of the state’s sixty-six total delegates—and many of the at-large delegates. In the end, he’d get a large majority of the state’s delegates without having won a majority of the votes.
Still, relative to the old system, proportional allocation helps candidates who have a narrower appeal stay in the race for longer. Say Rick Santorum wins roughly 45 percent of evangelical voters but only 5 percent of all other Republicans, while Romney wins 30 percent of evangelicals and 40 percent of non-evangelicals. That would give Romney more overall supporters, and he’d win a plurality in most states. Under the old winner-take-all system, that would have given Romney all the delegates outside of states where evangelicals constitute such a large majority that Santorum would win them. Under a proportional system Santorum would pick up a small slice of delegates in many Romney states. In other words, if evangelicals were a big majority in some Congressional districts in states that Romney carries, Santorum would get some Congressional delegates, and he’d also get a handful of at-large delegates in states where there are enough evangelicals to put him over the state’s minimum threshold, or where there is no minimum percentage.
But this is unlikely to change who the nominee ends up being. In the above hypothetical, Mitt Romney would still be the Republican nominee, it would just take him longer to win the nomination than in a winner-take-all system. As Aaron Blake of the Washington Post notes, Romney’s supporters in the RNC backed the rule change, so they clearly think it is unlikely to hurt his chances. And if Romney wins South Carolina, other candidates may drop out. That could allow Romney to get over the 50 percent threshold to win all the delegates in subsequent contests.
And, of course, perception matters as much as reality. If Romney is widely accepted to be rolling along to acquiring a delegate majority he will become the presumptive nominee long before he actually acquires all those delegates.
As of yet, no one has identified a major shift in strategy by any candidate that can be attributed to the proportional allocation rules. The only example would be that the two best-funded candidates—Romney and Ron Paul—have prepared for a long slog similar to the Democratic contest in 2008. So that’s something to look forward to.