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It's the Delegate Count, Stupid! GOP's Tricky Primary Vote Allocation Rules Mean "Get Down to Three or Trump's Home Free"

Theoretically, all of these later winner-take-all states could offer an opportunity for any of the top three candidates to catch fire and challenge the leader, but only if the field has been cut down to no more than three by early March.
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The Republican Party has never been all that comfortable with the proposition "one person, one vote"--even though the result in Bush v. Gore worked out pretty well for them based on a very particular interpretation of that Constitutional principle.

More importantly in our context, the Party has not been comfortable either with the prospect of a long, drawn-out, contentious primary process to select its presidential candidates or, even worse by their lights, a so-called "brokered" convention process where no remaining candidate holds a majority of delegate votes going in. Indeed, when that prospect was first "privately" bruited about by GOP "establishment" types, there was a good deal of denial and distancing soon evident, and no one in "power" seemed to want their fingerprints on such an idea--except now some of the remaining candidates seem to "quietly" think it may be their only chance!

Indeed, the Republicans moved, prior to this year, to restrict the number of debates among announced candidates, working with broadcasters and cable companies to weed out gradually the weaker-polling candidates, with the intent of bringing the contest down to a manageable number of candidates at an early point and getting a clear winner by April. To get to a majority for one candidate early enough to prepare for a smooth campaign takeoff--or even a head start on the Democrats--through to the summer convention and into the fall campaign, the Party establishment also worked with state Party officials to use the delegate allocation rules to force a selection of a winner in the March primary season, after the now traditional first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. This system, designed to keep pace with a presumed early wrap-up by Clinton and to help the "establishment" candidate, may now turn out to be something like a "doomsday machine" for GOP leaders who fear a Trump nomination.

The GOP's state delegate allocation rules are set to speed along the process of getting one candidate to a majority in two ways. The first consists of dropping or adjusting the simple "proportional" allocation rule that awards first-ballot committed convention delegates to each candidate on the ballot based on his or her percentage share of the vote or caucus by adding a benchmark threshold percentage that a candidate must exceed to get any allocation at all. These thresholds vary from 5 percent to as high as 15-20 percent in various primaries, beginning with the "Super Tuesday" and SEC primaries on March 1 and continuing through that month and beyond.

The second step goes further by changing the allocation to a simple "winner-take-all" rule, just as prevails in the Presidential election itself state by state, or a nuanced "WTA" that would revert to proportional if no candidate actually receives 50 percent.

The Democratic Party, by contrast, fundamentally maintains a form of proportional delegate allocation rule as the primary process moves through to a conclusion, although the Party reserves more "super delegates" largely within the control of each state's party apparatus independently of the actual primary vote or caucus results, which is how Hillary Clinton now holds several more committed delegates coming out of Iowa even though she and Bernie Sanders virtually tied in the caucuses.

Before detailing exactly which allocation rules apply in the particular primaries over the next four months, a quick look at the simple mathematical effects of these "exploding" super-proportional allocation rules--namely, that the "one person, one vote" principle does not apply--means that a candidate with only 14 percent or 19 percent of the vote in a particular state could wind up with an allocation of exactly zero, with his or her share being allocated proportionately to those who finish above those thresholds.

Now consider that, in the Iowa GOP caucuses, only three candidates earned more than a 20 percent share (Trump, Cruz and Rubio). In New Hampshire, only one did (also Trump), and only one other received more than 14 percent of the vote (Kasich).

And, in South Carolina, the results show that Trump will take the vast majority of the delegates due to winner-take-all rules for both the state as a whole and its Congressional districts, even though he only won about one-third of the actual votes. Rubio's 23 percent and Cruz's 22 percent votes will earn them virtually nothing in the way of first ballot Convention votes! With six candidates in the race, this result was almost a foregone conclusion. Down to five with the Bush exit doesn't change the math all that much.

If, for example, the new Hampshire results were repeated in the 50-delegate Alabama primary on March 1, with a minimum threshold of proportionality of 20 percent Trump would win 100 percent--all the delegates--while again winning maybe well below 50 percent of Alabama's popular vote! Cruz or Rubio, finishing next, could win absolutely nothing if they do not reach 20 percent, although their combined popular vote total could equal or exceed Trump's. Yet, if there were only those three candidates in Alabama, it would seem reasonable to assume that the nearly 30 percent of votes previous attributable to the remaining dropouts would throw off enough additional support to Cruz and Rubio to push them safely past the 20 percent threshold and a full proportional share of Alabama delegates, keeping Trump that much farther away from a convention majority.

The 20 percent threshold rule for Alabama's 50-delegate primary also applies on March 1 primaries in Georgia (76 delegates), Tennessee (58 delegates), Texas (155 delegates) and Vermont (16 delegates). In short, Trump or another candidate could easily win all 355 delegates in these five states with only one out of three votes. Two more 20-percent threshold states vote shortly thereafter on March 5: Louisiana and Maine, with 46 and 23 delegates respectively. With these 69, Trump or whoever would amass fully one-third of the 1,236 delegates needed for a Convention majority in just five days.

This result would be directly related to the fact that there are currently five live candidacies; yet two of the candidates are polling below even 15 percent right now, and Carson still hopes Evangelicals in South Carolina have begun to turn sour on Cruz and may yet support him, while Kasich also wants to stick around at least until his home state of Ohio's "winner-take-all" primary on March 15.

There are several other states voting on or after March 1 with 15 percent minimum thresholds that could skew the delegate allocations results more toward a 33 percent first-place finisher if more than three candidates stay in the race: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico and Utah.

New York, Connecticut and Washington, with primaries later into April, have opted for the 20 percent threshold, and Trump could well be favored in two of these three. Moreover, the true "winner-take-all" primaries in Florida and Ohio, along with Illinois, Missouri and Colorado (50 percent thresholds for WTA), Arizona, Wisconsin, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Nebraska, Minnesota, California, New Jersey and South Dakota will have kicked in during the latter half of March and thereafter, which could put Trump over the top with just a few more 100-percent delegate wins based on first-place finishes with about only one-third of all the votes.

Theoretically, all of these later winner-take-all states could offer an opportunity for any of the top three candidates to catch fire and challenge the leader, but only if the field has been cut down to no more than three by early March. If not, the chance of both second- and third-place finishers being shut out of hundreds of delegates by operation of the 15 percent and 20 percent minimum thresholds could make such last-minute "WTA" opportunities seem like a similar, much less friendly, three-letter acronym.

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