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Dispatches from the Campaign Trail

Where it Counts in Election Primaries – Delegate Math

Daniel Kuhn, SPA/MPP ’16

If the presidential candidates weren’t experts in how their party’s delegates work, rest assured they’ve been studying up lately.

How do delegates work, anyway? Voters elect delegates to party conventions in either a primary – which works like a general election – or a caucus. You can learn more about delegates here. A Democratic candidate needs 2,383 delegates to clinch the nomination, and a Republican candidate needs 1,237.

Some states give all their delegates to the candidate with the most votes. Others award their delegates proportionally. Then some have a more complex system. Either way, these state delegates are bound to vote for the candidate they’re assigned to at the nominating conventions, which happen in July.

GOP By Numbers

Before recent primaries, John Kasich of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida implied that they’d be best off if their supporters voted for the other in their respective home states, both of which are winner-take-all states. Rubio made it clear that a vote for anyone but him is a vote for Trump. Kasich got Rubio’s supporters in Ohio, but Rubio struggled in Florida, and was forced to abandon the race. Trump, however, has been doing well in the primaries. About 15 percent of delegates were at stake recently, with Florida’s 99 delegates alone being enough to cover 1/8 of what Trump needs to reach a majority. Cruz lost by three points in North Carolina, but will almost tie Trump in delegates. He fought to a virtual tie in Missouri but will get 1/3 of the delegates that Trump will. He lost by nine points in Illinois but could get zero delegates by not carrying any congressional districts. Even John Kasich, who Cruz beat by 10 points, will get more delegates.

It’s complicated. You might be yearning for the simple proportional method the Democrats use right about now. You wouldn’t be alone.

It’s hard to know what scenario Trump was hoping for: for Kasich to consolidate moderate support and rob him of valuable delegates, or drop out immediately and allow Cruz to take him one on one. Kasich does hinder Cruz’s ability to win a plurality in congressional districts, which strengthens Trump. Either way, there are a lot of variables at play, such as each state’s rules for delegate allocation, and the behavior of party moderates. Already, party leaders like Mitt Romney have all but called on Kasich, who he enthusiastically stumped for in Ohio last week, to drop out.

Rust Belt Democrats

The Democratic nomination contest was over, or so we thought, after Hillary dominated Super Tuesday. Then, Bernie Sanders shocked the world in Michigan, overcoming a double-digit deficit in the polls, and changing this race. Then Hillary appeared to have slammed the door shut again, with wins in all five March 15 contests, three by more than 13 points. The concerns the Clinton campaign had about her stance on trade, and possible troubles in the Rust Belt weren’t realized. But then a new string of caucuses were friendlier to Bernie Sanders, with Idaho on March 22, and Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington on March 26.

There’s another kind of delegate in the Democratic contest — so-called “superdelegates,” elected officials and other influential party officials who can vote however they wish. Sanders needs to convert momentum into big wins in order to overcome his deficit in both delegates and pledged superdelegates, but could it be too late?

What's Next

Wisconsin has a primary on April 5, New York on April 19, and five states in the northeast, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, on April 26. As for the GOP side, you might want to sit down for this. We likely won’t know if Trump will have enough delegates to become the nominee until June 7, when California and New Jersey, among others, vote in a primary.

Looking further ahead, with Kasich capturing all of Ohio’s 66 delegates and Rubio dropping out, he will consolidate the moderate vote, or whatever is left of it. There is also the distinct possibility that high profile endorsements, and perhaps more importantly, their donors, could be on the horizon. Rubio reportedly rejected an offer from Cruz to be his running mate.

If we are headed to a contested convention, you can expect that anti-Trumpers will be a very strong position. Most of the delegates will not be friendly to Trump, and those able to vote however they’d like after the first ballots, could give way to backroom deals. It would be, as Sasha Issenberg put it, try to “pull off one of the biggest, perfectly legal, heists in American memory.”

Should make for great television.

Snapchat Dispatches from the Campaign Trail

Daniel Kuhn, SPA/MPP ’16, takes to Snapchat as he reports live from New Hampshire

Snapchat on Storify

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