How To Pick Off Delegates: A Reader's Guide To Political Combat

WASHINGTON -- The Ron Paul campaign says it is "courting delegates" in Iowa and other states, trying to win over as many as possible to support their candidate at the Republican convention in Tampa this August.

But what does it mean to court delegates?

By understanding the delegate selection process, it's possible to grasp how a presidential campaign could go about trying to increase its delegate count. Each state has its own process, but most states do a number of things the same way.

Not all states have rules that allow for delegate counts to change after the initial popular vote, where voters go to the polls. Some state primaries "bind" their delegates. But many of the 13 caucus states have very flexible rules regarding delegates. In addition, the two states that Newt Gingrich has won -- South Carolina and Georgia -- may become delegate free-for-alls if Gingrich drops out and releases them.

And a number of primary states have language that is very vague about whether the popular vote binds delegates to cast their votes the same way.

Drew Ivers, an Iowa co-chair of Paul's campaign, said there are about 20 non-caucus primary states that he thinks have some flexibility with at least some of their delegates.

Katon Dawson, a Gingrich supporter from South Carolina and a former state party chairman, pointed to language in Arizona's rules as one example of a state whose 29 delegates are currently with Mitt Romney, but could move to another candidate at the national convention in Tampa if there was a contested convention and the vote went to multiple ballots.

"The way I read Arizona's rules, they're not really bound," Dawson said. "I've got an 86-page manifesto that shows how to take over a convention," he added.

Bluster aside, the flexibility and vagueness surrounding delegate allocation is why the boasts from the Romney aides about their current delegate lead is not as open and shut as it might appear.

So how can a presidential campaign try to peel off delegates and increase the number beyond current estimates? It starts not at the national convention, but at the local conventions in each state. Take Iowa, for example.

The first thing to remember is that the word "delegate" does not always refer to the same thing.

"It's a sequence of delegates electing delegates electing delegates," said Drew Ivers, a member of the 17-member state central committee, and a state co-chair of Paul's presidential campaign.

In Iowa, there are essentially four stages of voting, starting with the Jan. 3 caucus that kicked off the primary process nationwide. In the fourth round of voting within the state, their 28 delegates are selected to go to the national convention. Once in Tampa, those 28 delegates will cast votes for a presidential candidate.

At each round of voting, the geographic area gets bigger -- from local precinct to county to congressional district to state -- and the number of delegates gets smaller, from 8,500 to 2,500 to 28.

On Jan. 3, there were 122,255 voters who cast ballots in all 1,774 precincts for a presidential candidate. But in a separate vote, some voters elected about 8,500 delegates to county conventions.

Not all the voters cast ballots for the delegate slots, however. Especially in more populated areas, many voters left the caucus sites before the delegate votes, because it came after the vote on presidential candidates.

On caucus night, Kevin Hall, a blogger at The Iowa Republican, wrote: "A lot of people are leaving following the [presidential] vote. The diehards, like me, will stay to be a part of the delegate selection process."

So right away, only the most politically-minded Iowans -– the activists, the political consultants, the elected officials and their staffs -– had an impact on the real process that matters in a close election.

The county conventions were held last Saturday, March 10, in all 99 counties. The delegates elected on Jan. 3 in each precinct caucus voted at those conventions for a smaller group of delegates -– about 2,500 people -– to attend two other conventions, a congressional district convention on April 21 and a state convention on June 15 and 16.

To the extent they could, each presidential campaign wanted to push as many of their supporters to the district and state conventions. But the real deal-making and delegate recruitment will come now that those delegates are chosen.

Here's how Iowa's national convention delegates are allotted. Each of the state's four congressional districts gets to pick three. That accounts for 12.

An additional 13 delegates (along with 13 alternates) will be chosen by an eight-person nominating committee. Those 13 delegates will have to be approved by a vote at the state committee. And the last three delegate spots go to the state party chair, and the Republican National Committee committeeman and committeewoman.

The congressional district conventions on April 21 won't hold votes on national delegates. The only thing they'll do that day affecting the presidential election delegates will be to choose two people to join the statewide nominating committee. That eight-person nominating committee will then select the 13 at-large delegates to be voted on at the state convention in Des Moines on June 16.

On June 15, the night before the state convention, the congressional district conventions will convene in Des Moines, split into separate rooms at HyVee Hall, to vote on the three delegates they can each send to the national convention.

And here's where the process becomes more tangible. In each of the congressional district conventions, candidates for delegate will stand up and give speeches, after their nomination is put forward by another delegate and seconded.

"These people ahead of time will send out literature. They will let themselves be known who they are. Sometimes they will hint which candidate they support. Sometimes they won't," Ivers said.

So a campaign looking to influence delegate selection will need to recruit, from the pool of 2,500 state delegates chosen at the county conventions this past Saturday, their most talented, politically connected supporters to run for national convention delegate.

"If a campaign's organizing the first thing they should do is get the best speakers they have to run out of their congressional districts," said Craig Robinson, a former state GOP official who runs the The Iowa Republican blog.

"Iowans are always impressed with who can give the best speech," he said.

A big challenge for campaigns on Friday night will be communicating with supporters on who to vote for and who not to vote for, especially when the allegiance of certain candidates for delegate is not known, Robinson said.

"The more I kind of listen, I think there is going to be a lot of contested races for delegates. I would be surprised if any of the races are not contested," said Steve Scheffler, the state's national committeeman, who is one of the state's three "super delegates."

On Saturday, June 16, the state convention will vote on the 13 at-large delegates to the national convention. The candidates can be challenged, but the challenger must propose an alternative name that is seconded by another delegate, Scheffler said.

"You can't just get up there and say I don't like those 26 names," Scheffler said. "You actually have to have a name, and I'm almost positive you have to do it one by one."

So in summary, there are a few avenues that campaigns will need to focus on:
  • They need to recruit their best supporters to run in each of the four congressional districts.
  • They need to work on the 2,500 delegates to the district and state conventions to get as many as possible to vote for delegates who support their candidate.
  • They need to make sure they have people who support them on the nominating committee that will put together the initial list of 13 at-large delegates.
  • And they will want to be ready to challenge and replace some of the 13 at-large delegates to be voted on at the state convention.

Organization and establishment support –- Romney's strong suit -– matters in all this. A number of at-large spots could go to the Iowa's governor, lieutenant governor, and other major political figures in the state. Those votes would then be likely Romney delegates.

But grassroots support also matters. Paul and Rick Santorum both have passionate support among activists, if not much from the state party establishment. They are both organized in the state as well, with Paul having the upper hand because his people have been preparing to snag delegates for years.