Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Myth of Republican Presidential Primary Proportionality Revisited

It was opportune that Stuart Rothenberg opted to pen an item in Roll Call today about the Republican National Committee rules changes for the 2012 presidential nomination process. FHQ had a revised look at the rules changes in the queue and Rothenberg's piece just adds fuel to the fire. It is another example of the media and commentators getting this wrong. And I couldn't disagree more with Rothenberg's interpretation. He essentially calls the new winner-take-all "restrictions" built into the RNC delegate selection rules a small change with a potential big impact. FHQ has just the opposite reaction:

The rules change is big and the impact potentially small. That the RNC created a panel -- the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee -- to look at and possibly tweak the presidential selection rules was huge in and of itself. But the fact that the TDSC actually altered the rules and curbed the freedom it has in the past allowed states in terms of setting their own delegate selection plans is, in FHQ's view, fairly monumental.

The back end of this is the impact the rules changes will have on the 2012 Republican presidential nomination process. As FHQ has stated previously, the rules across the two national parties have been wrongly interpreted in black and white terms: the Democrats have proportionality rules and the Republicans have winner-take-all rules. If any gradience has been added to the RNC rules, it has been to allow for the fact that Republican state parties could have in the past used proportional allocation methods if they so chose. But that misses -- and perhaps rightly so because you can get down in the weeds of this pretty quickly -- the true nature of the Republican rules both past and present. Those interpretations fail to closely examine the differences in allocation across the so-called winner-take-all states.

Again, as I stated previously, the tendency is to think of it in binary terms. It isn't either winner-take-all or proportional in the Republican Party. In fact, there are only a handful of states where the allocation method is truly winner-take-all (The candidate who wins the most votes receives the all of the delegates.). No, instead the winner-take-all states are divided into two main groups: straight winner-take-all states and hybrid winner-take-all states. In 2008, there were 10 truly winner-take-all states and 14 hybrids that divided delegate allocation between the statewide vote and the congressional district vote or provided for some vote percentage threshold (typically 50%) that would trigger the winner-take-all allocation. In other words, under certain conditions, a candidate might or might not win all of the delegates in those hybrid states.

This can get terribly complicated, so let me illustrate this in a different way. Basically, any state Republican Party with a straight winner-take-all system will have to make some alteration to their rules in 2012 if the party is planning on holding a primary before April 1. To reiterate, that is only a handful of states. Of the 24 Republican primary states in 2008 that had some form of winner-take-all allocation (whether straight or hybrid), only seven are currently scheduled or are likely to be scheduled at dates prior to April 1 that also need to make changes to their rules. For the straight winner-take-all states like Arizona or Vermont that could mean any number of changes. The path of least resistance is to split the allocation into statewide and congressional district votes. Only the statewide delegates are required to be proportionally allocated. The congressional district delegates can still be allocated using winner-take-all rules. [More on this in a moment] Another possible route is to create a threshold rule. If one candidate clears the 50% mark in the contest, for instance, that candidate receives all of the delegates. If the majority barrier is not cleared, the rules require a proportional allocation method.

In reality, most states can maintain winner-take-all rules under certain conditions; even before April 1. The proportionality requirement in the new rules only applies to a state's at-large, statewide delegates. Let's parse this out by looking at the breakdown of the delegates at stake in the primary states scheduled or likely to be schedule for pre-April 1 dates.

2012 Republican Delegate Apportionment (Early States)
StateTotal DelegatesDistrict DelegatesBase DelegatesBonus DelegatesAutomatic Delegates%Proportional
1 States already have proportional allocation of all delegates.
2 States have either/or allocation rules. If a candidate receives a majority of the vote in either the statewide vote or congressional district vote, that candidate nets all the delegates from that unit. If a majority is not won by any candidate, the delegates for each unit are allocated proportionally.

Source: The Green Papers

Again, in looking at this apportionment, the Base and Bonus delegates are the ones that are required to be allocated proportionally in a contest prior to April 1. A threshold can be included in the state parties' delegate selection plans, but if that is not met by one of the candidates, the least amount of change is to simply allocate the those two types of delegates -- the ones allocated based on statewide results -- proportionally and maintain winner-take-all rules for the congressional district delegates. There are a couple of things going on here that bear some mention. First of all, the more loyally Republican a state's voting history has been, the more bonus delegates it receives. That, in turn, means that there are more potential delegates at stake proportionally in that state relative to a more Democratic state. Secondly, smaller states are more disproportionately hit by this restriction because of the 10 base delegates that all states have. In other words, there are fewer district delegates that can be allocated winner-take-all. This is pointed out in the far right column. That accounts for the percentage of the state's total delegates that are open to proportional allocation due to the Republican National Committee's rules change.

[Note also that each state also has three automatic delegates. These are delegates within the Republican Party similar to the Democrats' superdelegates. They are free agents in some states and not in others. Each state has three: one for the state party chair, one for the national committeeman and one more for the national committeewoman.]

The bottom line is that the rules changes will force an alteration of the rules in all true winner-take-all states and some more minor changes to state party delegate selection plans in some of the hybrid winner-take-all systems. The impact of the switch varies based on the two factors discussed above. In 2008, many of the hybrid winner-take-all states looked as if they were true winner-take-all states. Candidates, whether McCain, or Romney or Huckabee were able to do well across the board in a state and win, if not all, then most of a state's delegates. [The hybrid systems I've discussed here are often referred to as winner-take-most states.]

In some ways, then, this is where we have to balance the changes to the rules and the impact that may have with the dynamics of the 2012 race. The rules changes matter, though not to as great a degree as Rothenberg and others have described, but the dynamics are of consequence as well. If the race develops into a two-person Perry-Romney fight, then we could see this play out in any number of ways. The two candidates, on the one hand, could do well in particular areas of the country or among particular demographics that are prevalent in various state -- like the Obama-Clinton race in 2008 -- or we could witness a competitive battle everywhere on the map between those two. In the former instance, the new rules may matter very little. Perry, say, could do very well in the South; to the point that they appear to have been straight winner-take-all contests. Romney could likewise do well in western states or states with high LDS populations and the same would be true in terms of the delegate allocation. But if Perry and Romney end up, on the opposite end of this spectrum, battling evenly everywhere, then the rules changes -- the proportionality requirement becomes more consequential.

In truth, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. One candidate may do well in some states or group of states and minimize the rules change while simultaneously running even with the other in other states, causing the proportionality requirement to be of greater influence.

But one thing is for sure, this rules change is not a complete abolition of winner-take-all allocation in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination race. It just isn't.

[NOTE: For the record, FHQ probably should not get so frustrated with the media and analysts when this comes up. At some point the RNC needs to take some heat for not having properly educated the public, and particularly its primary voters, on this matter.]

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