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South Carolina Primary: One Candidate May Easily Win All Delegates

by Elise Helgesen, Rob Richie // Published January 20, 2012
south carolina flag

The political world is focused on South Carolina’s primary tomorrow, which has been a volatile race that seems to be coming down to Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Polls this week show both men hovering around a third of the vote.

But the statewide outcome is not the only story tomorrow. At this point, more attention should be paid to what nomination contests mean for allocation of delegates to the Republican National Convention this August in Florida. The bottom line is that whoever wins South Carolina will not only gain momentum, but also will likely take the lead in delegates earned from nomination contests.

The Iowa caucuses triggered great media hype over the Iowa caucuses and attention to whether Romney or Rick Santorum “won” them with a quarter of the vote, but in fact no delegates were bound by what amounted to a straw poll. The New Hampshire primary allocated only 12 delegates, with the top three vote-getters dividing them on a roughly proportional basis. With the nomination winner ultimately needing 1,144 delegates, we obviously should have a long way to go – that is, if the media will let the contest keep unfolding without prematurely crowning the current leader as the sure winner.

Delegate allocation isn’t nearly as straightforward as it might seem. FairVote has posted an updated review of delegate allocation rules in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and five territories. In 2010, the Republican National Committee, to much fanfare, established a new rule (Republican Party’s Rule 15(b)(2)) requiring any state or territory holding a contest before April 1 must allocate delegates by proportional representation. But that’s not quite how it worked out.

First, South Carolina was one of four states exempted from the requirement to use proportional representation, but it’s the only one taking advantage of that exemption. It has established a rule that may well lead to one candidate winning all of the state’s delegates with less than 40% of the state’s popular vote.

Second, two additional states, Florida and Arizona, are allocating all delegates to the statewide winner in upcoming contests held before April 1st. They’ve lost half of their delegates already due to breaking RNC rules on when to hold the contest (as have South Carolina and New Hampshire), but are not being sanctioned for using the winner-take-all rule instead of proportional representation.

Finally, Puerto Rico is breaking the rule as well, holding a winner-take-all contest in March without any apparent penalty whatsoever.

South Carolina’s delegates may end up being allocated to more than one candidate, but it won’t be according to proportional representation. According to South Carolina’s Republican Party rules, the state party will award its 11 at-large delegates to the winner of the statewide primary vote and will award two delegates on a winner-take-all basis to the winner of each of the seven congressional districts.

In winning statewide, a candidate likely will, although not necessarily, carry most of the state’s congressional districts. That means that the winner will likely earn at least 19 of the state’s 25 delegates (11 state-wide, plus eight for carrying four districts). The winning candidate could end up with a plurality of the vote in each congressional district and earn all 25 delegates, even with far less than 50% of the vote.

South Carolina effectively would become a winner-take-all state if one candidate were to sweep the statewide primary and the congressional districts, as well. Romney still has a real chance to win the state, which would strengthen his frontrunner status, but most polls show Gingrich with a growing lead. He has the best changes to secure all of South Carolina’s 25 delegates, which would put him into the national lead.

A Gingrich win also could propel him toward a win in Florida, where his large December lead had recently evaporated as Romney surged ahead. With Florida using winner-take-all as well, whoever wins the state may well keep the lead in delegates no matter what happens in all the February contests, as those contests will be allocated largely by proportional representation.

This raises questions about why the Republican National Committee seems more concerned about trying to enforce the scheduling of primaries than its 2010 requirement of proportional representation in early contests. The party adopted strict limits on use of winner-take-all rules to ensure more states had a chance to hold meaningful contests and to force their eventual nominee to demonstrate strength in more parts of the country.  With uneven enforcement of its rule, that goal is less likely to be met – and outcomes more likely to be distorted.