The Republican Hope: Changing the Game

Note to the Republican establishment – if you cannot win the game that you are playing, re-think the game.

This may be a little bit ahead of the general consensus, but there are two paths to the Republican presidential nomination, and only Donald Trump looks to be able to win on the first path –  getting a majority of delegates from the primaries and caucuses. The others, particularly Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, are dependent upon the second path – splitting the vote in the remainder of the contests and sending the decision to the July convention, a result that hasn’t happened since Thomas Dewey was nominated in 1948.  That is a difficult assessment because of the complexity of the process in each of the states and the the lack of reliable polling on a state-by-state basis. The premise relies on the assumption that Cruz will retain the loyalty of the true conservatives, that Rubio will retain the loyalty of the moderates, that Trump has a ceiling of about 40%, and that Trump can be denied victories in a number of key states, keeping him from the 1237 needed for nomination.  Let’s try that analysis.

First a brief tutorial on the Republican delegate selection process.

The Republican National Committee has a role in setting up the game, but they in no way control it – unlike the Democrats where 20% of “super-delegates” represent interest groups, the voting RNC members make up about 7%. Inallocating delegates among the states and territories each state gets a base of 10 delegates, plus three for each congressional district, plus three for the state party leaders (territories get a bit less.) States which voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 also get get 4.5 plus .6 times their number of electoral votes. Each also gets one for each Republican senator and governor, one for each state legislative chamber controlled by Republicans, and one if half or more of the Congressional delegation is Republican. Overall, this tilts the table a bit to the more conservative states and the smaller states – up with Mississippi; down with New York.

Within the states is where the professional operatives make their money. How the states select their delegates is up to the state party – except that RNC rules stipulate that states voting after March 15 must select their at large delegates on a “winner take all” basis. Some use caucuses which favor core activists; a few use state or district conventions which favor the real core activists; most use primaries – some open to non-Republicans.  A few are fully “winner take all” (including Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and New Jersey ); most states contain “at large” delegates which are proportional or winner take all and district delegates which are generally winner take all; most have thresholds of 15 to 50% to qualify for proportional allocations. Some of the state party leader delegates are obligated to follow the vote; most are not. Most result in state delegations with delegates for two or more candidates.

A few other factors are at play. Given all of this complexity there is a benefit for the campaign with a strong ground game – not only for getting out the vote, but also for ensuring that there is strength in each district. Recruitment of delegates is also important for discipline at the national convention and in Illinois where the named delegates are on the ballot. As the pace accelerates in March adverting (and money) becomes more important as do the Political Action Committees. Most of the pundits do not understand the complexity, and look predominantly at who wins a state rather than how many delegates they actually get. (Perhaps the best analyst can be found at FiveThirtyEight.com.)

A brief look at the calculus:

– The first four states have given Trump 81, Rubio 17, Cruz 17, and others 16. Trump received 6.5% of what he needs; 5.4% have been allocated.

– Super Tuesday, March 1, in a set of states largely favorable to Trump and Cruz, will yield 661, all from states which allocate proportionally. The big prize is Texas which has about a quarter of that total, and has a 20% hurdle to get any delegates. If Cruz wins Texas with Rubio passing the 20% hurdle, and Trump peaks around 40% in the rest of the states, this round could come out with Trump getting something like 350. Trump suffers if Cruz does well. Cumulatively Trump would have 35% of what he needs with 32 % allocated.

– Between March 5 and March 12 there are 11 proportional elections in states and territories still generally favorable to Trump and Cruz, yielding 356 delegates. If Trump gets 250, he would have a cumulative 55% of what he needs with 46% allocated.

– March 15 with 367 delegates – and the shift to “winner take all” elections – will determine whether Trump can be stopped. If he loses Ohio’s 66 (presumably to Kasich) and Florida’s 99 (presumably to Rubio), he might win another 100, bringing him to 63% of what he needs with 61% allocated.

– From there until June 7 it gets more difficult for Trump, with the large states of California, New York, and Pennsylvania proving more favorable to the moderate Rubio. There is also a nuance that as the contest moves into more blue states each congressional district gets three delegates regardless of the number of Republicans in the district (in most cases) – thus Rubio can carry more delegates with fewer votes than can a candidate whose strength is in heavily Republican districts.

And a few comments on the convention: delegates are bound for only the first round, and the three delegates for each state and territory’s RNC members (168) are generally free agents. Most importantly, this is all moot unless Rubio and Cruz  stop attacking each other in a futile effort to be the single non-Trump candidate – and we may have seen a bit of that in the February 25 debate.

That’s all probably too wonkish, but there is hope for the anti-Trump establishment types – at least until March 15.


This week’s video provides a background on the president’s ongoing policy of releasing prisoners from Guantanamo.

bill bowen – 2/26/16