- Most Republican primaries award delegates according to a winner-take-all rule where the first-place finishers win every delegate.
- Iowa and New Hampshire are exceptions, where delegates can be won in proportion to raw votes.
- The delegate selection process among Republicans in Iowa has three levels of conventions. A voter is actually participating in a straw poll that selects delegates to go the County Convention, which picks delegate for the District Convention, which picks delegates for the State Convention, which decides the final result.
- Whereas every Democratic candidate has roughly the same strategy —win Iowa then New Hampshire””the Republican candidates are taking a wide variety of approaches, reacting differently to 2008's unprecedented nomination schedule.
- The GOP may be embracing wide reaching reform, with an important vote on fixing the system scheduled for January.
The Winner-Take-All Effect
Unlike the Democrats, most primary states in the Republican nomination process award delegates according to a winner-take-all rule, or a compound rule that almost always produces a winner-take-all outcome. This means simply that whichever candidate gets the most votes receives all of the delegates — no matter how low the plurality of the vote.
This phenomenon clearly aids frontrunners, and can have the effect of bringing the nomination to a conclusion swiftly, even if a divided vote is the result after the early window states votes. If still a frontrunner, for example, pro-choice candidate Rudy Giuliani could conceivably benefit from Tsunami Tuesday on February 5, if support for pro-life candidates is heavily fragmented. This would allow him to carry states without a majority of the vote, but still take 100% of the delegates in a series of big states.
Winner-take-all creates more incentives to attack opponents because the stakes are so high. Iowa and New Hampshire are not winner-take-all, but another Republican rule keeps negative attacks on the rise. Everyone knows that the first-place finisher will get the big headlines, and, unlike the Democrats in Iowa, the second choices of Republican caucus-goers won't matter. Candidates therefore have little incentive to reach out to backers of other candidates. With different frontrunners in different states, the candidates are firing away at nearly every other candidate. If second choices mattered, candidates would be less likely to slam their opponents.
The winner-take-all rule turns surprise upsets into potential roadmaps to the nomination. Whereas a first-place finish with 25% in South Carolina among Democrats earns about 25% of the delegates, the Republican winner converts his 25% into 100% of delegates. Mike Huckabee, for example, may well preserve his lead after a prospective win in Iowa with plurality victories in states where he perhaps lacked the time to set up extensive operations. Mitt Romney, John McCain and Fred Thompson all have visions of strong finishes in Iowa or New Hampshire, which could propel them to the front of the pack. There they could suddenly win the lion's share of delegates.
After Iowa and New Hampshire, the winner-take all effect will cause candidates to focus on states where they could take it all, rather than states where the number of delegates up for grab is smaller. If you win 3% more in a winner-take-all state, you might go from winning no delegates to all delegates. If you win 3% more in a proportional state, you will win only a handful of more delegates, if that. With limited resources, campaigns will begin to make decisions that recall of general election dynamics, abandoning states they cannot hope to win (or are sure they will) in favor of those that are closest.
In fact, Massachusetts Republicans dumped their winner take all in 2007 partly on the theory that it would encourage campaigning in a state widely viewed as a lock for Massachusetts' Mitt Romney. At the time one of the state party officials remarked that if the candidates “think it's hopeless for them to win the whole prize, they won't come here and we'll end up a political backwater."
New Jersey, a state Giuliani hopes to win, recently switched to winner take all. Ironically, the Giuliani campaign was accused of participating in a plan to divide California's electoral votes by congressional district. The proposed ballot measure would have appeared on the June ballot and could have delivered a chunk of California's electors to the Republican nominee, even though its 55 electors always fall in the Democratic column. Even if done nationally, there is no doubt that such a system would produce highly dysfunctional results. (More at www.fairvote.org/wrongwayreforms)
Among Republican Candidates, Diverse Strategies within Party Rules
Whereas every Democratic candidate has roughly the same strategy —win Iowa then New Hampshire””the Republican candidates are taking a wide variety of approaches, reflecting 2008's downright weird nomination schedule as well as incentives created by winner-take-all primaries and a lack of “second choice”ï¿½ voting. Their unusual and contradictory approaches are a testament to the fluidity of a crowded nomination race without a definitive frontrunner — the first time Republicans have lacked one in generations.
Here's a summary of how the rules may affect different candidates' campaigns.
Mitt Romney takes a traditional approach. He has calculated that the path to victory lies in winning Iowa and New Hampshire. With his national poll numbers lacking, the Massachusetts governor has poured resources into the early voting states. By October, Romney had passed the milestone of running 10,000 ads in Iowa, massively outspending his rivals.
Gov. Romney wants to avoid pulling a Steve Forbes — spending millions of dollars only to rake in 10% in Iowa. Of course, Romney realizes the advantage in Iowa depends to a large extent on organization. Though the “winner”ï¿½ of the Iowa caucuses may claim only as much as 25% of the vote, Romney still has the chance to come in first, as the contest looks more and more like a two man race with Mike Huckabee.
Rudy Giuliani, on the other hand, has not campaigned as hard in Iowa or New Hampshire --although active in both states-- and is said to be banking more heavily on the large crush of states voting on February 5 than would traditionally be done. With his resources and national popularity, his campaign seems to believe he is well positioned to take important states such as California, New York and New Jersey. Consider that with only five of the biggest states in which Giuliani is currently polling well, he would take nearly half of the delegates up for grabs on that day, again because of the winner-take-all rule.
If successful, Giuliani would forge a new way to win presidential nominations, at least within the current presidential nomination calendar. The question becomes, have strong campaigns adapted to the new primary schedule that created Tsunami Tuesday, or did the frontloaded calendar influence which campaigns were the strong ones?
John McCain has a one state strategy of going after New Hampshire, partly by necessity after campaign missteps earlier in the year. He would not be the first presidential candidate to write off Iowa — Bill Clinton did so when he and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin vied for the nomination in 1992, and McCain also focused on New Hampshire in 2000.
Though brought on by financial weakness, the strategy is not doomed to failure. As other candidates sluice money and campaign resources into a state that could be written off as irrelevant if the result is unsurprising (i.e. Romney or Huckabee ultimately win and no one else surprises in their finish) McCain can more effectively consolidate their position in a state that has more than once reversed political fortunes — and use that momentum in the next states. A McCain backer in the Granite State is sure to say, “Iowa picks corn; New Hampshire picks presidents.”ï¿½
Mike Huckabee is showing a reverse strategy of McCain's — he's focused on Iowa far more than New Hampshire. After narrowly finishing ahead of Sen. Sam Brownback in the August straw poll in Iowa, Huckabeee has built his support and surged to the front in Iowa and to the top two in the nation in recent polls. A win in Iowa probably won't help win New Hampshire, but it promises to lead to improved results there and success in other early states like South Carolina, giving him national momentum before February 5.
Here, however is where two factors become important — money and the winner-take-all rule. Though Huckabee might be surging nationally, Giuliani may be the man to beat in states like California if he remains unhurt by results in Iowa and New Hampshire. And though an Iowa victory would bring in money for Huckabee, the nation's first primary will follow fast on its heels only five days later in New Hampshire, a state the Governor might find a little colder. Could Huckabee hold out for two weeks until the South Carolina primary, and then Florida? If so he will need to contend in Michigan's newly created early primary in the interim. Currently he is polling well there.
Ron Paul is often dismissed by pundits for his anti-war and small government stances, but he is beating Sen. Fred Thompson in New Hampshire 2-to-1 and has won some key straw polls like the one held at the recent Republican convention in Virginia. With a calm, septuagenarian demeanor punctuated by the occasional Libertarian roar that may appeal in a state based on the motto “live free or die,”ï¿½ Rep. Paul raised $10 million over the last two months, and is fast assuming the Internet mantle once worn by Howard Dean, sustained by a vibrant Meet Up-driven volunteer base.
In some ways Paul's maverick candidacy recalls Congressman John Anderson, who ultimately left the Republican Party he saw moving away from Rockefeller and towards Reagan in 1980. Any talk of a third party bid is vehemently denied, but there's no question that the enthusiasm would be there, and Paul would indisputably be more relevant in the 2008 general election than a bid by figures like Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney.
Though clearly a long shot, Paul could theoretically move to plurality status among a highly fragmented field in New Hampshire and other states. He couldn't win a majority -- a recent CNN/WMUR poll in New Hampshire found that that 61% of Republicans would not back Paul “under any circumstances”ï¿½ — but he could finish first.”ï¿½ With a big round of winner-take-all primaries coming up, a Paul candidacy could surprise on February 5 if he surprises in New Hampshire.
Fred Thompson may find it ironic that his best chance lies in being the John Kerry of 2008. To win, Thompson would have to defy expectations in Iowa — just as Kerry did after a campaign also criticized as lackluster. As the expectations game is played, even a third place win for Thompson would be seen as a surge, whereas a second place win for a frontrunner like Huckabee would be viewed as a defeat. A McCain backer in 2000, Thompson theoretically could bounce from an Iowa surprise finish to strong showings in New Hampshire and South Carolina going into February 5. Thompson only narrowly trails Huckabee and Romney in second choice support in Iowa (Rasmussen Reports, December 11).
Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter —These trailing candidates face the stiffest hurdles. They will need a big surprise in Iowa, which few expect. Their supporters may be most influential if making decisions to abandon their first choices before the caucus.
Republicans Move toward Reform
The Republican Convention could be the site of efforts to overhaul the primary system in a serious way. A public meeting of the RNC Rules Committee is scheduled for January 17 in Washington, DC to discuss and vote on changes to Rules 15 and 16 dealing with delegate selection and enforcement. A study book of the proposals to be debated has been compiled by the RNC's General Counsel's office. About eight proposals contained in the study book, including the status quo rules, Delaware Plan (nearly passed at the 2000 convention), the American Plan (backed by FairVote) and the rotating regional plan (backed by the National Association of Secretaries of State).
The RNC Rules Committee result goes to the full RNC for a vote at its spring meeting, and that result is forwarded to the National Convention Committee on Rules in mid-summer, ultimately arriving on the convention floor in the Twin Cities in 2008. A similar process in 2000 led to the Republicans narrowly declining to take a floor vote on the Delaware Plan in 2000. It's quite possible this will happen again.
For more on the Delaware Plan and other reforms, visit www.fixtheprimaries.com
Telephone Press Briefing on Issues to Watch for in Upcoming Primaries
Cosponsored by The Century Foundation and Fair Vote
Tova Wang, Democracy Fellow, The Century Foundation
Robert Richie, Executive Director, FairVote
Ryan O'Donnell, Presidential Elections Reform Program, FairVote
Edward A. Hailes, Jr., Director, Power & Democracy Program, Advancement Project
Thursday, December 13, 2007, 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.
Participant Dial-In Number: (800) 322-9079
Conference ID: 27620653 (reference this number when joining the call)
Laurie Ahlrich at firstname.lastname@example.org or (212) 452””7722
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