As the GOP hopefuls work on through the Fourth of July weekend, it’s worth asking: how exactly does a candidate win the Republican Party’s nomination? Today: the basic structure.
(This is a three-part series. Part I focuses on the overall structure of the Republican nomination process. Part II will delve into how state primaries/caucuses work. Part III will outline potential victory strategies for the candidates.)
The Republican presidential field is crowded and getting more so, with Rep. Thad McCotter (R-MI) officially entering the race this week, Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) on the brink, and Sarah Palin constantly looming in the shadows. The media is abuzz with strategies and “road maps” for candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire and so forth, often delving into technical details and throwing out terms like “district conventions,” “winner-take-all states,” “unpledged delegates” and so forth.
But it’s the Fourth of July weekend, a brief pause in the political world’s wall-to-wall coverage, and so I thought I’d take a step back from the trees to give the forest a good once-over. What, exactly, do you have to do to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee? Let’s start with the basics, and make them as simple as possible by using a time-honored Q&A rhetorical device.
OK, so: when does the candidate actually get to wear the fancy hat that says “I’m the nominee!” or whatever?
The Republican Party nominates whoever gets a majority of the votes of the official delegates to the 2012 Republican National Convention. According to political facts site The Green Papers, that means the votes of 1,212 out of 2,422 delegates, absent any changes to the party’s rules. The convention itself will be in Tampa, Florida, from August 27 to August 30, 2012.
Who are these convention delegates?
That’s a little more complicated. A lot more complicated, actually, but as we go through it, remember this general rule: Republicans like unambiguous nominating processes. That’s true even if the whole affair seems “undemocratic” or opaque. Again and again, Republicans have bet (frequently successfully) that a clear winner is better than an inter-party fight that drags on into the summer or even to the convention floor. After all, the phrase “smoke-filled room” was coined after the Republican nomination of Warren Harding in 1920.
There’s an important caveat to that preference for clarity, though: because the Republicans like to wrap up their process quickly, a candidate with early momentum could be far more likely to snap up the nomination. Back in the days when delegates were chosen by state party bosses rather than primaries or caucuses, that wasn’t as important, but as you saw in 2008, John McCain was able to quickly run the table based on his wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida and effectively snag the GOP nomination by February. McCain then got thoroughly beat in the general election, and many Republicans were left with buyer’s remorse. In 2012, you’re much more likely to see the desire for a candidate to emerge unambiguously get tempered by a desire to make sure that choice is the right one.
You’re not answering my question, you loquacious misanthrope.
You kiss your mother with that mouth?
Just tell me who these “delegates” are!
Okay, okay. Ready for some crazy math? According to the GOP’s official rules, the basic delegates are chosen from the fifty states like this:
Ten (10) “at-large” delegates (five for each senate seat)
Three (3) party leaders (the national party’s chairman & chairwoman for that state, plus the state Republican party’s leader)
Three (3) delegates per seat the state has in the House of Representatives (for example, Hawaii has two seats, so it will get six delegates from this rule)
That doesn’t seem so bad, but it doesn’t seem to add up to 2,422, either.
Just because I was a social sciences major doesn’t mean I’m terminally bad at math, you know. Those are just the basic delegates. States can also win bonus delegates! Here’s how:
If the state “went Republican” in 2008 (that is, it voted for McCain in the Electoral College), it gets a bonus of [4.5 + three-fifths of the state’s total number of electoral college votes], rounded up.
If any of the state’s Senate seats are held by elected (not appointed) Republicans, it gets one (1) bonus delegate per elected Republican Senator.
If the state’s governor is a Republican, it gets one (1) bonus delegate.
If the state’s members of the House of Representatives are majority-Republican, it gets one (1) bonus delegate.
If the state’s local legislature has one house that’s majority-Republican (like, say, the New York State Senate), it gets one (1) bonus delegate.
If all of the state’s local legislative houses are majority-Republican, it gets an additional one (1) bonus delegate.
That’s… more complicated. Why do they give out bonus delegates?
They want to make sure that states which generally vote Republican have more clout in the nomination process. Think about it: California’s a big state, but it doesn’t reliably vote Republican. Why should its Republicans have as much say as they would with just the basic delegates voting when they can’t even deliver the state in an election?
Fair enough. But that still doesn’t add up to 2,422.
Do you have a calculator or something? Put it away and stop bothering me. Yes, territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, etc. along with the District of Columbia get to send at-large delegates and their three local party leaders, too. There’s even a complex rule for when DC’s electoral votes go to a Republican candidate. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about it, because it will never be used, ever.
Okay. So those are the delegates. But how do they decide who to vote for?
That’s left for each state branch of the Republican Party to determine.
What? But you just gave me all this bluster about Republicans liking their nominations unambiguous!
Yes, I did say that. But the state parties have taken that to heart, too, not just the national party. And since the national party largely leaves them to their own devices, they can have whatever system they’d like: a primary, a caucus, or even no public voting process at all.
Can you explain those terms?
Caucus: any sort of meeting to select delegates. They’re generally run by the parties, not the states, and can vary widely in their rules and effects. In Iowa, for example, the caucuses we think of as “the Iowa caucuses” actually only elect delegates to the local Republican party’s district convention, which will then elect new delegates to the state convention, who will then elect new delegates for the national convention.
Primary: This is probably what you think of when you think of voting. It involves actually going to your precinct’s polling place and turning in a ballot (or mailing in an absentee ballot or what-have-you). The state generally pays for and maintains it, but parties determine what happens with the results. In Washington state, for example, the government pays for a Democratic primary, but the state Democratic party doesn’t want to use it, so they elect their delegates through caucuses – and the primary results wind up meaning absolutely nothing. With Republicans, the primaries are usually some combination of proportional or winner-take-all (see further below).
Non-public process: This used to be the way most delegates were selected. The state party would just have a convention and choose its delegates behind closed doors. This may sound like smoke-filled room talk to you, but believe it or not, some states’ Republican parties still do this with some or all of their delegates. Wyoming‘s is the most well-known, since it was the earliest to do so in 2008.
So, a state uses one (or more) of these methods to pick delegates and then they all go to the convention and vote for the same candidate, right?
Again, it depends on what the state’s party wants! Delegates may be distributed in proportional, winner-take-all, or some entirely different fashion. And then, get this: the results may not even be what we call binding. Before you ask, let me explain.
Proportional: A state’s delegates are allocated proportionally to each candidate, though there’s often a floor of support that the candidate has to reach to even get one. For example, New Hampshire will have twenty (20) delegates up for grabs, and any candidate that gets above 10% of the vote would be entitled to a share.
Winner-take-all: Whoever comes out ahead in the final contest to determine delegates (primary, state convention, etc.) gets all the state’s delegates.
Hybrid: Some curious combination of proportionality and winner-take-all. For example, in California, most delegates are assigned winner-take-all… in each Congressional district (with three delegates per district), not state-wide. Then ten “at-large” delegates go to whoever got the most state-wide votes.
Binding/”Pledged” delegates: Even after a state party selects its delegates, it could give them varying instructions on how “loyal” they have to be to their candidate. Some state parties might penalize a delegate for casting a vote against the candidate they were supposed to support at the convention if the candidate didn’t give them permission to do so, while others (again, Wyoming) might select delegates based on who they say they’re going to vote for but allow them to remain “unpledged” to any candidate.
This is making my head spin.
Well, if it’s any consolation, it’s making my hands hurt.
Not really. I keep coming back to this “unambiguous” proclamation of yours. If the states can all do whatever they want, how does the national party or anyone exert any sort of control? That seems guaranteed to create ambiguity to me.
Ah, see, the national party determines how delegates are allocated, or even whether they get to show up to the convention at all. So any state that wants to send delegates has to abide by the national party’s calendar rules, which are the agenda of who gets to vote and when. Currently, that looks like this:
February 1: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada may begin their nomination processes (that is, hold caucuses, primaries, conventions, or whatever else the state party wants to hold).
March 6: Other states that want to allocate their delegates proportionally may begin their nomination processes.
April 1: All other states may begin their nomination processes.
Why did they set it up that way?
Well, the parties both got together in 2008 and decided that smaller states in different regions of the country should have the opportunity to go “first” in the process. Iowa and New Hampshire have voted “first” for ages and are feisty about their “rights” to do so. South Carolina has inched earlier and earlier in recent years. Nevada, a swing state, seemed like a good choice for the West.
That gap of under a month between March 6 and April 1 is the Republican concession to those who said McCain’s early momentum made him unstoppable. He took a number of winner-take-all states in February of 2008 that made his lead all-but insurmountable. This way, even a candidate who wins all four of the early contests will have to compete in proportional states rather than just cruise to victory by taking a small plurality of the vote in a huge state like California or Texas.
But then you could go to the convention with lots of delegates from those “proportional” states for different candidates, right? That could look bad for a candidate if they only come out with, like, 1,400 votes at the convention.
You could, and it could. But in practice, what winds up happening is that a candidate reaches the majority of “pledged” delegates and the other candidates, seeing this, “release” their own delegates. Those folks then all rally behind the winner and the vote looks like the one you saw in 2008:
John McCain: 2,443 (98.44%)
Ron Paul: 21 (0.88%)
No vote: 14 (0.59%)
Mitt Romney: 2 (0.08%)
What happens if a state tries to break the calendar rules?
The state automatically gets stripped of half its delegates.
That doesn’t sound so bad.
It doesn’t, which is why both Florida and Michigan did it in 2008 and Florida is currently set to do it again, screwing up the entire calendar. We’ll know by October 1 (the date the national party has set for states to figure out how they’re going to send delegates) whether this all gets blown up.
However, the party could vote to impose harsher restrictions, including wholly disenfranchising the states who break the rules. They don’t like to do that, because it demoralizes the party base there, but anything is possible.
Remember in 2008 when everyone talked about Democrats and “super-delegates” and how long that went on for? Can’t that happen here?
No, because Republicans don’t like the “super-delegates” idea. The national Democratic party lets a significant number of party officials show up “unpledged” and vote their conscience at the nomination conventions (it was 856 out of 4,419 in 2008, or about 20% of the total). Republicans only let three people per state/territory do that (168 out of 2,422, or about 7%). Again, it makes other candidates more likely to give in once someone secures a majority of delegates.
Ah. Okay. So the Republicans aim to have the nomination wrapped up shortly after April 1.
Right. Then the convention becomes lovely pageantry and so forth.
But how is that going to work out in practice? When are Iowa and New Hampshire and so forth actually going to do things? Which candidates will compete where?
Aren’t you full of questions! But it’s the Fourth of July weekend. Why don’t you tune back in for Part II on Monday, where we can talk about how these basic rules will play out in practice during the first few contests.
Yeah, great, thanks, I can read that while barbequing or lighting fireworks or something.
Are you being sarcastic?
For a rhetorical device, you’re pretty sassy.
Part II: The Early State Contests & “Super Tuesday” – Monday, July 4
Part III: Candidates & Their Strategies – Wednesday, July 6
Source: The Faster Times