Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Republican Nomination Process Examined

We have pointed out several times that the Republicans generally use a winner-take-all system in their primaries and Democrats don't. While that has been true in the past, there may be some changes afoot. Politico has an interesting article on the Republicans' delegate selection process. While this definitely falls into the category of inside baseball, it is worth watching because it could reveal some clues to 2024.

Republicans and Democrats have different views on federalism and that reflects itself in the parties' rules. Democrats have a central rule that requires some kind of proportional representation, but there is some wiggle room as to whether this is statewide or per congressional district or a mixture of both. In 2008, the outsider, Barack Obama, won the Democratic nomination because he fully understood the rules and the insider, Hillary Clinton, didn't. For example, Clinton fought hard for Ohio, a big state where 1.26 million Democrats voted, and she won it 53% to 45%, giving her a net gain of only seven delegates. Obama fought hard in Idaho, where 21,000 Democrats voted, giving him an 80% to 17% win and a net gain of 12 delegates. Turns out winning small states by huge margins worked better than winning huge states by small margins.

In contrast, Republicans largely leave it to the states to decide how to allocate their delegates. States can decide to use winner-take-all (WTA) per congressional district or statewide or even some form of proportional. Or they can decide that a candidate who gets 50% +1 statewide gets all of the delegates. The difference between proportional allocation and winner-take-all was illustrated clearly in 2016 in New York. Donald Trump won 60% of the vote and got 89 of the 95 bound delegates (94%) because he crossed the 50% threshold in nearly all of the congressional districts. The New York Democrats used proportional allocation per CD. So although Clinton got 58% of the statewide vote in NY, she got only 139 of the 247 delegates (56%). Thus, the rules matter.

Now on to 2024. Trump's campaign has an advantage here because his team understands the rules better as a result of his 2016 campaign. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) probably doesn't have a clue how Kansas allocates its delegates. In fact, Kansas may not even know yet. If there is a large field of candidates, what might matter is getting to 50% in specific districts in order to scoop up all the delegates there. For example, if polling shows Trump at 60% in KS-01, there is no point in him holding a shootout in Dodge City as that district is already in the bag. But if polling puts him at 45% in KS-04, he ought to make a beeline for Wichita to rally the troops to get 5% more. If Hillary Clinton, with years of experience in national politics, didn't understand how this works, there is a pretty good chance that DeSantis, who rarely travels outside Florida, does not have it down pat.

The rules are not cast in stone. State parties can, and do, make changes when that suits them. For example, some state Republican parties canceled the 2020 primaries and just gave all the delegates to Trump. Trump has a strong base with many of the state parties and may get them to make rules that favor him, despite any yelping from national Republicans that it is time for The Donald to exit stage right. Just an example, from Trump's point of view, a "good" rule would be to forget about CDs and just allocate all the delegates to whichever candidate got the most votes statewide. That would mean if he came in first with 30%, he would get 100% of the delegates and the other candidates who got 70% of the votes together would get 0% of the delegates. Allocation by CD might give a very different result, even with winner-take-all in each CD.

Consider Ohio. In 2016, then-governor John Kasich won 47% of the vote and 100% of the delegates. If current-governor Mike DeWine (R-OH) wants to put a big rock in front of the Trump bandwagon, he could ask the state party to chuck the old rule and go for WTA per CD. Or maybe even for proportional representation statewide. Or, heaven forbid, ranked choice voting.

Of course, although allowing someone to snatch all the delegates with a bare plurality of the vote works well for the frontrunner, which candidate that favors depends on who the frontrunner is. It would be ironic if Trump pressed all the state parties to implement a rule giving the statewide leader all the delegates, and by February 2024 DeSantis was the leader and he scooped up all the delegates by beating Trump 40% to 35% everywhere, with half a dozen other POTUS wannabes getting the crumbs.

Yet another possibility is for states to replace primaries with caucuses or conventions. They reward candidates with small, but passionate, followings. For example, a state convention could require attendees to pick up a ballot before noon on a Saturday but then cast it in person Sunday between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. In that way, only people willing to spend two days hanging out and listening to candidates for the state Senate give boring speeches could vote for delegates to the Republican National Convention. To prevent monkey business and ballot harvesting, attendees could be required to sign the outer ballot envelope on line 1 while at the ballot-pickup table with officials watching and again on line 2 when casting it (like the old American Express travelers' checks with two signatures). This scheme would enable the candidate with the most dedicated supporters to win, even if they weren't the most numerous statewide.

In short, this under-the-radar stuff could be important. If you detect some of it in your state, let us know. (V)

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