On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Republican delegate selection for March 1

March 1 will be the biggest day on the 2016 calendar for choosing candidate delegates to the Republican Party Convention taking place in July. All eyes are on the relative performance of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.

Looking behind the vote shares each candidate can secure, the process for actually winning delegates across these 14 states is bafflingly diverse, and seriously penalises candidates who don’t finish in the top two spots in each state.

Lets dive in. To start with, the party rules nominally require that all these states allocate their delegates ‘proportionally’. (States holding their primaries from March 15 onward can revert to the old ‘winner-take-all’ rule).

The way this is done is actually a fairly poor generator of proportionality.

First, the states all divide their delegates into some that are won on the basis of each candidates’s statewide vote, and some won within each congressional district within.

District delegates

Lets’s take the district delegate awards first. 342 delegates will be awarded in districts on March 1.

The districts are allocated three delegates each. Obviously that means a very flat sort of proportionality. Allocating three seats between proportionally between six candidates is fundamentally awkward.

Just on the basis of the maths, candidates who don’t win at least 20% or so of the vote won’t win any of the three delegates in any district.

In most cases the only real possibilities are that the candidates coming 1st and 2nd each get one delegate, with the third delegate either also going to the candidate who ran 1st, or else to whoever ran 3rd.

Once these wins are all aggregated, that means:

  • the candidate (if there is one) who had generally come 1st across a state will get a disproportionate share of the delegates
  • whoever generally comes 2nd will probably get roughly a third of the delegates, but will lose out a little if their vote share is uneven across the state
  • all other candidates will struggle to pick up even a single delegate district-by-district

Only if there is a very diverse vote outcome across a state, with no clear winner, will the results start to be a bot more proportional.

Some states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Texas) actually specify that where a candidate gets 50% or more of the district vote, they simply revert to winner-take all: that candidate gets all 3 delegates for the district.

In most cases it is the specific vote shares each candidate wins in each separate district which determines the result, but some states (Alaska, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia) simply apply the statewide vote to every district. In these states the district delegate allocations will be uniform and, therefore, unfairly favour the candidate who comes first in the state.

Finally three states (Colorado, North Dakota, and Wyoming) use a different system altogether, where individual delegates are personally elected. This means people run to be party convention delegates on the basis of their own political positions, which must include a declaration of which presidential nominee they pledge to support.

It’s unclear exactly how this happens but the traditional American election method in multi-member elections is the block vote, a method which is inherently disproportional and usually allows the leading candidate to win all three delegates – a form of winner-take-all outcome.

So overall, despite the party’s claim that these allocations will be proportional, in each state the candidate doing best can expect a distorted share of the allocations.


Statewide delegates

Lets’s move on to the statewide delegates. 305 delegates will be awarded in the 14 states holding Republican primaries on March 1.

The statewide delegate numbers on offer range from 10 in Vermont up to 44 in Texas. Obviously it’s much easier to allocate delegates among the candidates much more proportionally to each candidate’s personal vote share.

However, several states require candidates to win a minimum vote share threshold to be eligible to win any delegates. In five states (Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Vermont) this is as high as 20%. Once again, this means that only the top three candidates, and possible fewer, can win any delegates in these states.

In Oklahoma and Arkansas the threshold is 15%, in Alaska 13%, in Minnesota it’s 10% and in Massachusetts 5%. In these states more candidates have a chance to be allocated some delegates.

US conventions - Republican March 1 methods

Different methods and thresholds in the 14 March Republican primaries; orange are individual-delegate elections, while shades of red indicate different statewide thresholds

The rules differ a bit from state to state, but generally each candidate is initially allocated the share of delegates that matches their vote share. That calculation will most likely leave several delegate spots unallocated because of rounding off or because of vote shares of candidates who fell below the threshold. The general rule is that all these unallocated delegate spots are awarded straight to the candidate who came first.

Seven of these 14 states – mainly the southern states and including the largest ones Texas and Georgia – even have a rule that if one candidate passes 50% of the vote, they immediately win all the delegates.

Only the state of Virginia will award its 13 statewide delegates in a more-or-less proportional way.



All in all, a total of 647 pledged delegates will be awarded on March 1 – 342 in districts and 305 in statewide calculations.

There will be big bonuses for the candidate who runs first in any state. The clear pattern is that despite being nominally a proportional allocation, in reality the calculation methods disproportionately favour whoever comes first, and maybe the candidate who runs second, to the disadvantage of all the others. In some cases it actually reverts to a winner-take-all rule.


…and on current polling this means…

Polling in advance of the 14-state March 1 primaries is generally showing Donald Trump broadly in the lead in most states with at least 40% of the vote. (A generic poll the day before Super Tuesday has one aggregated nation-wide support among republican voters surging to 49%.)

On this basis, Trump will be a big winner under the state rules, and can expect to collect 60% and perhaps even more of the 647 delegates on offer.

Of the remaining two ‘establishment’ candidates – Marco Rubio and John Kasich – Rubio is polling between 17% and 25% in various states, and Kasich is polling 4% to 7% in all states except for a better result of 16% in Massachusetts.

That total would see even just one candidate get a disproportionately low share of the delegates, but the fact that it is divided between two candidates will be damaging to the establishment.

As Rubio has slowly eked out polling gains in recent days, his position has improved, and he will achieve proportionally appropriate results in several regions within states. Rubio should pick up the occasional one delegate in various three-delegate district allocations where he reaches 25% to 30% or better locally. For this reason there are reports that Rubio’s campaign is deliberately targeting resources and campaign effort at favourable districts, rather than whole states.

Rubio (and certainly Kasich) will also pick up a disproportionately low share of delegates in the statewide counts, again only where they individually survive the threshold cut. The delegates they fail to win in statewide counts will be transferred to whoever comes first, which seem likely to be Trump in most states.

Overall, Kasich can expect to collect very few delegates outside perhaps of a proportionally appropriate share in Massachusetts.

Religious conservative candidate Ted Cruz is broadly in second place on somewhere around 15%-20% of the vote. Many of the states in the South that are voting on Super Tuesday are thought to be favourable demographically and politically to Cruz’ political profile. However against that background, the poll results which show Trump dominating must be disappointing to Cruz’ campaign.

Importantly, Cruz leads most opinion polls by varying but modest margins in his own state of Texas, the largest state voting on March 1. He is roughly tying the polls with Trump in Alaska and Arkansas. In these three states Cruz should collect a roughly proportional share of the delegates.

Ben Carson – polling weakly at 5%-8% – can expect to get just a handful of statewide votes, but only where he survives the thresholds.

Overall, the March 1 event looks likely to be a major win for Trump, and a generally worthwhile second place for Cruz, with the rest of the field being mauled.

In expectation of this outcome, the Republican establishment has already begin the difficult task of shifting gear to a full-on Stop-Trump! emergency strategy. At the same time they will also need a Stop-Cruz! emergency strategy. Their position will be mathematically awful from here on.

Trump’s recent endorsement by two states Governors – former candidate Chris Christie in New Jersey and Paul LePage in Maine – will work in the opposite direction, indicating that the some elements of the party establishment are shifting to accept and embrace Trump.

The establishment’s only hope of stopping Trump from winning the nomination – should be united in doing so – will be to unite behind one candidate, and somehow recover the situation at the 13 winner-take-all states holding primary elections from March 15 onward.

US conventions - Republican WTA states.png

The establishment’s late-season hopes rest on 13 states where their candidate must come first and win all the delegates

But will it all be too late? And can they, in any case, find a candidate – with Marco Rubio now effectively the only remaining option – who can actually start coming first in these elections?


(lead image: Washington Post)



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This entry was posted on March 1, 2016 by in Current issues, Polling and prediction, United States, US presidential primaries.
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