Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Jeb Bush, Puerto Rico and Backdoor Winner-Take-All Delegate Allocation

It is not some mistake that Jeb Bush is in Puerto Rico this week for a fundraiser and town hall meeting.

According to law in the territory, there is to be a primary election next March; on the third Sunday in March unless that date conflicts with Easter or Palm Sunday.1 In 2016, it does. Instead of being on March 20, then, the Puerto Rico primary will fall on Sunday, March 13; just at the tail end of the proportionality window.

But why would a candidate make the effort to venture into Puerto Rico in April in the year before a presidential nomination race at the prospect of gaining some proportional share of the territory's 23 delegates? The answer is twofold. First, and Lesley Clark at McClatchy raises this, is that there are potential primary and general election ramifications in Florida's Puerto Rican community to making an appearance in and talking about issues important to folks on the island and in the continental United States.

That is true, but there are broader strategic implications at play here as well that piggyback on that Florida-Puerto Rico connection. The Florida primary is scheduled for Tuesday, March 15. Florida Republicans are also talking about a winner-take-all delegate allocation plan. However, it is unclear if those plans include a truly winner-take-all allocation method or the more-often-used (sans national party penalty) winner-take-most allocation. Let's assume here that it is the former (and FHQ thinks it will be).

The Puerto Rico primary is situated just a couple of days earlier, just inside the proportionality window on March 13. If the party utilizes the same type of allocation plan it used in 2012, then it has the potential to be a backdoor winner-take-all contest. There are no congressional districts in Puerto Rico, so there cannot be any differentiation between congressional district delegates and at-large delegates. All 23 are at-large delegates. That has the practical implication of making the Puerto Rico Republican delegate allocation either truly proportional or truly winner-take-all. Given, the date of the primary, it cannot be the latter.

Recall, however, that a party can include certain thresholds in its delegate allocation plan to guide the process (and still meet the proportionality requirements). In 2012, Puerto Rico Republicans required candidates to received at least 15% of the vote to be allocated any delegates, but if one candidate wins a majority of the vote, then that candidate is awarded all 23 delegates. The latter threshold was cleared by Mitt Romney in 2012 when the former Massachusetts governor won nearly 90% of the vote.

That backdoor winner-take-all scenario in Puerto Rico plus a win in winner-take-all Florida (outside the proportionality window) is a significant one-two punch (over 120 delegates). If a candidate can pull that off in what appears to be a protracted race (at that point), that is important. The key here is that there is less difference between a winner-take-most contest and a proportional contest than there is between a winner-take-all primary or caucuses and everything else. Not all states after March 14 are rushing to be winner-take-all. But some are, and if this race keeps going, targeting those winner-take-all states -- as John McCain did in 2008 -- is a big part of the puzzle in the race to 1235.

Jeb Bush is making that play.

1 Here is the text of that primary law:
Those primaries to be held pursuant to the provisions of this subtitle shall be held on the third Sunday of March of the year in which the general election is to be held, except if said Sunday is Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday, in which case, the primaries shall be held on the second Sunday of March of the same year. Primaries shall be held on the first Sunday of March if the aforementioned holidays fall on the second and third Sunday. 
In the case of national primaries, these may be held on any date after the first Tuesday of March of the year in which the general election is to be held, up to June fifteenth (15th) of that same year, as determined by the local body of the national party.
The Republican Party in Puerto Rico used the second part of the law as its motivation for setting the date of its 2012 primary, but ended up scheduling it on the date called for in the first part -- the third Sunday in March (March 18, 2012).

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