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When the Republicans re-wrote the rules for 2016, they shortened the proportionality window — from a full month to two weeks. That led to several states with Republican legislatures and Republican governors opting for a March 15 primary date — the first day on which Republican state parties can hold a primary that does not follow the proportionality rules. In particular, the Florida Republican Party (listening to suggestions from the Bush and Rubio campaigns) opted for a winner-take-all primary. What looked great in 2014 and early 2015, now looks quite differently after last night’s results.
As always, Super Tuesday — the first Tuesday after the end of the pre-primary window — has done a lot to at least outline the shape of the race for the White House. Because at this point, the race becomes all about the delegates (and not about exceeding expectations), there are clear tasks for the candidates over the next two weeks.
On the Democratic side, through 16 contests, Hillary Clinton has exceeded her 2008 performance in 11 states. More significantly, in several states — Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia from last night and South Carolina from Saturday, Secretary Clinton has far exceeded her 2008 performance turning losses into big wins. In each of these five states, the swing in favor of Secretary Clinton was in excess of 30 delegates. In the five states that swung away from Secretary Clinton to Bernie Sanders, the biggest swing was 16 votes (in Massachusetts which was much closer this time than in 2008). The overall net change from 2008 so far is a swing of approximately 300 delegates. Considering that Secretary Clinton only lost by 104 delegates in 2008, Senator Sanders needs to find some state to alter these numbers soon.
Over the next two weeks, three states are key to whether Senator Sanders can make it a competitive race or whether he will become a gadfly who stays in the race long after its over. These three states are Michigan (March 8), Illinois (March 15), and Florida (March 15). Michigan and Florida are key because of their size and because of the weird role that they played in 2008 that led to Secretary Clinton winning those states by large margins (18 and 26 delegates respectively). If Senator Sanders is to win the race, needs to gain significant delegates in the large states that went to Secretary Clinton in 2008. If he can’t put a dent in Secretary Clinton’s numbers in these two states, it is hard to figure out where he makes progress. Additionally, at some point, Senator Sanders has to win some of the large states. So far, the largest state that Senator Sanders has won in Minnesota with Secretary Clinton winning the four largest states.
After the first four states, Donald Trump has taken 81 of 133 delegates. However, between March 1 and March 6, eighteen states with over 800 delegates will begin the process. The Republicans rules require that the states going this week allocate their delegates proportionately if they have a preference vote, but only place very loose limits on what qualifies as proportional. For the states and territories going in this time period, there are four questions that each state must answer: 1) do we have a preference vote (for caucus states); 2) do we do proportional by congressional district or do we allocate all delegates by the statewide vote: 3) what is the minimum threshold to qualify for delegates (the rules allow up to 20%); and 4) is there a level at which the state becomes winner-take-all (the rules set a floor of 50%).
This week, the pace of the primary campaign begins to pick up. The Republican caucuses in Nevada will take place on Tuesday, giving voters very little time to digest the impact of yesterday’s results in South Carolina. (Does Marco Rubio narrowly taking second place over Ted Cruz give Senator Rubio much of a bump or cause much Damage to Senator Cruz? Where do the Jeb Bush supporters go?) Democrats in South Carolina — voting on Saturday — have a little bit more time to consider the not-yet-final results from Nevada.
By taking all 50 delegates in South Carolina, Donald Trump — for now — has won over 50% of the delegates at stake in the first three contests. However, Nevada returns the Republicans to the same system used in Iowa and New Hampshire — proportional allocation by state-wide vote. The win in South Carolina assures that entering Super Tuesday, Trump will be in the lead and will exit Nevada with more than half of the delegates at stake in February. (Currently, Trump is at 67 delegates out of 103 delegates in the first three states. Nevada has 30 delegates. Thus even if Trump got 0 delegates, he would still have 67 delegates out of 133, enough for a slight majority).
The rules of the Nevada Republican Party provide that, for the most part, fractional delegates are awarded based on the highest remainders. With 30 delegates at stake, a whole delegate equals 3.3333__% of the vote. However, to get any delegates, a candidate must get at least one whole delegate (3.33333__% of the vote). Based on the current Real Clear Politics average (which should be taken with a grain of salt, given the difficulty of modeling the Nevada caucus vote and the question of where Jeb Bush’s vote and the undecided vote will go). Donald Trump would get 13.40 delegates (which would translate to 14 delegates); Ted Cruz would get 6.38 delegates (which would translate to 6 delegates); Marco Rubio would get 6.06 delegates (which would translate to 6 delegates); John Kasich would get 2.23 delegates (which would translate to 2 delegates). and Ben Carson would get 1.91 delegates (which would translate to 2 delegates).
This week is a weird week in the presidential primary process. For almost all primary states, both parties hold their primaries on the same date because the date is set by the state legislature. Even in caucus states, there is a tendency that both parties will choose the same date. In South Carolina, however, the parties choose the primary date for their party. So this week, the Republicans have their primary in South Carolina, and the Democrats have their caucus in Nevada. Next week, the two parties will flip with the Republicans going in Nevada, and the Democrats going in South Carolina.
On the Republican side, the four states in the pre-March 1 window are exempt from the proportionality rule. South Carolina has chosen to go with a winner-take-most system. The candidate who finishes first in each of the seven congressional district will win the three delegates for that district. The candidate who finishes first state-wide gets the twenty-six at-large delegates and the three automatic delegates. At least according to the polls, Trump seems to be safely in the lead for the twenty-nine state-wide candidates. If one of the establishment candidates has a chance at winning one of the congressional districts, it is most likely to be the 1st district or the 6th district. Ted Cruz’s best chance of winning a congressional district will be the 3rd, 4th, and 5th districts.
On the Democratic side, Nevada has some weird rules. State law designates how many delegates each precinct gets to the county convention and how many delegates each county gets to the congressional and state district conventions. The counties get one delegate to the state convention for each 150 registered democrats in the county. The formula for the precinct is more complicated. In counties with fewer than 400 democrats, each precinct gets 1 delegate to the county convention for each 5 registered democrats. This ratio gradually changes so that in the largest counties (those with more than 4,000 democrats), each precinct gets 1 delegate to the county convention for each 50 registered democrats. Because this formula simply makes the county conventions larger and does not alter representation at the conventions that actually choose delegates, it should not have an actual impact on who gets Nevada’s delegates to the national convention. While Nevada will report raw vote totals, the key in Nevada (as in Iowa and other caucus states) is figuring out how many delegates each campaign will have at each of the county conventions and what that means for delegates at the state convention where delegates will actually be allocated.
In the typical presidential campaign cycle, the calendar year before the primaries is spent doing two things — raising money and campaigning in the early states (almost entirely in Iowa and New Hampshire). The reasons for this focus are simple. There is not enough time after Iowa and New Hampshire for a campaign to raise the type of funds needed to “go national.” Additionally, several major states come early in March; so the campaign has to start working in these states even before the first votes are counted. Both parties have a history of candidates with surprisingly good results in Iowa and New Hampshire who did not have the resources on hand to turn those early results into a successful national campaign. On the other hand, as several candidates in this year’s campaign have already shown, failure in Iowa and New Hampshire mean the end of the campaign. For the eight candidates still running, the question after New Hampshire is simply what’s next.
On the Democratic side, with only two candidates, this question is simple. As 2008 showed, in a two-candidate race (especially with proportional representation), candidates need to run everywhere. The last South Carolina polls were in January, before either the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary, and the newest Nevada polls are even older. The demographics in South Carolina and Nevada are significantly different than the demographics in Iowa and New Hampshire. In the long run, whether this race will be close will depend upon if Sanders can convince minority voters and poor whites in rural areas to support him. While — in European terms — Sanders is a “pink” at most, his characterization of himself as a “Democratic Socialist” might become an insurmountable barrier to gaining these votes in areas in which he is less known as socialist is a “dirty word” to a lot of voters who do not understand the significant distinctions between various progressive political philosophies. While there are some potentially favorable states on March 1 (Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and maybe Colorado), Sanders needs to keep things close in Nevada, South Carolina, and the remaining March 1 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia).
The Republican side gives candidates more choices on how to play. The New Hampshire results have scrambled the field. If Marco Rubio had been able to follow-up on Iowa with a strong finish in New Hampshire, he would have become the favorite to win the nomination. His weak showing has given both Jeb Bush and John Kasich a degree of hope to become the consensus candidate. At this point, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz need to run everywhere. In the pre-March 15 states, while each state has slightly different rules, a general rule of thumb is that 20% state-wide and top two in each congressional district equals delegates. While Kasich, Bush, and Rubio continue to split the moderately conservative vote, the path is clear for Trump and Cruz to pad their delegate totals — making it harder for the candidate who survives between the other three to get the nomination.
For a couple more weeks, the primaries are still in the one or two states per week mode. With one or two states, it is possible to do a detailed discussion of the rules for delegate allocation and to clarify the “math” of winning delegates. Once March 1 hits, with double digit contests on both sides, the battle for delegates will become a multi-front war in which even the campaigns will be trying to figure out where the battlegrounds are.
While the parties did not have much choice about including Iowa and New Hampshire in the window of early states, the theory behind the early states is that all four are small enough and different enough to help narrow the field. While winning is nice, the real goals of the campaigns are: 1) to seem viable enough that supporters (both voters and donors) don’t go looking elsewhere; and 2) to meet targets for delegates. Candidates who are unable to show signs of life quickly find that their campaigns have no life.
While vote totals are not irrelevant to presidential elections (especially in the primary phase when trailing candidates quickly find that they lack the financial resources to continue), what ultimately matters is not the popular vote, but winning delegates (for the primaries) and electors (for the general). The delegate math heading into the Iowa Caucuses are different for the two parties for two reasons: 1) the stage at which delegates are bound and 2) the two parties do proportional representation differently.
In less than four days, voters in Iowa will head to some location in their precincts and cast the first official votes of the 2016 presidential campaign. Both because of its small size and because of the unique compositions of the respective parties in Iowa (compared to the national parties), winning in Iowa is not essential to winning either party’s nomination. What does matter is how Iowa sets up the rest of the race.