On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Preview of the 2016 US presidential primaries


The United States President, unusually for presidential democracies, is not directly elected. He or she, and their Vice-President, are chosen by an electoral college procedure mandated since 1789 by the US Constitution, as described in the page above.

This page describes how the political parties will select their nominees for President and Vice-President.

In short, the nominees are chosen at party conferences, called conventions, held in July or August of each election year. By established practice the party not holding the presidency holds its convention first.

This convention system has been consistently in use since the early 20th century (it has earlier origins). Since the 1960s it has involved a fairly uniform approach in which most of the delegates to these conventions are elected by voters at elections called primaries, held between February and June of the election year.

This website is mainly concerned with the election of assemblies, not of presidents. But in fact the Republican and Democratic conventions held every four years are elected assemblies. Indeed the US presidential nomination conventions have probably the most complicated of all the electoral systems used to elect assemblies in the democratic world; for this reason alone are worthy of examination.


THE CONVENTIONS:  procedures common to both parties

The number of party convention delegates involved is large: 2,472 delegates for the Republican convention and 4,762 for the Democratic convention. (Incidentally, their large size makes these two assemblies the largest elected bodies in the democratic world.)

In the Democratic convention some delegate positions are reserved for unelected delegates – sitting politicians, party officials and others, often referred to as ‘superdelegates’. The Democratic convention is 85% elected and 15% reserved. The Republican party convention does not have this type of delegates.

Whilst the majority of delegates are elected for the purpose of supporting candidates for the presidential nominations, a small number of delegates are state party officials who are not obliged to support nominee candidates. Such delegates are referred to as ‘unpledged‘, while candidate-supporting delegates are ‘pledged’. The pledging is mostly a matter of party rules, but in a few states state law places a legal obligation on delegates to keep their candidate pledges.

Both party’s elected delegates are chosen by voters in the various states and territories. (Unlike the main election in November, where US citizens living in territories do not play a role in electing the President, the parties allow territory residents to select a few convention delegates.)

The two modes of election are the primary, which resembles an ordinary election, and the caucus, where participants gather in local venues, discuss the candidates for a specific time, and then submit individual ballots.

Each state includes a mix of delegates awarded in national House of Representatives congressional districts as well as delegates awarded ‘at-large‘ based on the statewide total votes.

The number of delegates from each state is broadly in proportion to population (or at least to numbers of congressional seats, which is a proxy for population). However each party modifies this starting allocation to recognise various aspects of each state’s support for the party, resulting in voters in safely partisan states having relatively more impact on the delegate numbers and therefore the ultimate selection of the parties nominee. (Ironically, in the process of selection of the party nominees this actually disadvantages voters in the swing-states, which are the very states most likely to decide the actual election in November!)

Each state government organises its own primary season events, through a combination of state legislation and specific party rules. Elections are actually conducted by the office of Secretary of State.

Each state selects the date for its event. Many states see the two parties holding similar events on the same day, but in some cases the two parties chose different dates for a state.

In the United States voters are registered to vote at the state level, and only registered voters can participate in party primaries (other than in North Dakota, which uniquely allows voting without registration).

In most states a voter must be registered to vote a few weeks prior to the primary event; some states allow ‘same-day’ registration by voters at the polling place.

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16 states allow ‘same-day’ registration at polling places. North Dakota does not require pre-registration to vote at all.

Voter registration is usually accompanied by a declaration of which party each voter wishes to be affiliated with. Party affiliation is voluntary – the option of registering ‘undeclared’ is usually provided. This unusual practice is used to support the primary elections system.

Each state’s legislative arrangements (mostly in a uniform way for all parties, but sometimes allowing variations according to party choices) will set out whether the state’s primary or caucus is:

  • closed (limited to party-affiliated voters for each party)
  • semi-closed (limited to party-affiliated and also undeclared voters)
  • semi-open (limited to all voters who are not affiliated with the other major party)
  • open (any voter can participate in any party’s ballot – but only one)


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The mode of primaries for the Democratic party; darkest blue are closed, mid-blue are semi-closed, pale blue semi-open, and all others are open.

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The equivalent map for the Republican party; overall, a few more primaries are closed

Although they play only a minor role in US elections, political parties other than the Democratic and Republican parties can also use this system, which is established by state legislation. For example in many states the Libertarian party (which usually nominates a presidential ticket) will elect delegates to its convention, as will other smaller parties. In states with open primary approaches, this will obviously cause some voters to skip the primaries held by the two major parties.

For many decades the formula for delegate selection was that the candidate with the most votes in any state – a plurality – was awarded all of the delegates allowed for election in that state. In recent years the parties began shifting to rules where the candidates shared the delegates proportionally – a system which is certainly healthier for fairness to the different viewpoints of the voters, and is likely to lead to a more legitimate final decision. The trade off may be that the winner does not become clear until later in the season than was common in the past.

In 2016 the Democratic party has moved entirely to proportional elections of delegates.

The Republican party insists on proportional ballots until mid-March, and thereafter states are a mix of proportional and winner-take all methods. Overall the Republican system now results in delegate numbers elected through systems which are 54% proportional, 33% winner-take-all, and 13% various hybrids of the two types.


The Republican Convention of 2016

US republican elephant

The Republican Party Convention will be held in Cleveland, Ohio from July 18th to 21st.

For its 2016 primaries and caucuses the Republican party insists on proportional election of delegates until mid-March, and thereafter states show a mix of proportional and winner-take all methods.

In 2016 the party has a very complex candidate contest, with 12 candidate campaigns surviving into early 2016. Analysts such as Charlie Cook and Rothenberg and Gonzales, as well as the mainstream media, generally divide the candidates into the following groups:

  • establishment/mainstream republicans: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Senator for Florida Marco Rubio, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ohio Governor John Kasich, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, and business executive Carly Fiorina
  • religious right candidates: Senator for Texas Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Senator for Pennsylvania Rick Santorum, and neurosurgeon Ben Carson
  • a force of his own: billionaire businessman and media figure Donald Trump
  • libertarian republican: Senator for Kentucky Rand Paul

As the contest opened in mid-2015 it was generally assumed that establishment favourite Jeb Bush was the favourite and frontrunner. This has not been sustained.

With 12 candidates in the field polling has been very fragmented; even the current poll leader Donald Trump has not achieved more than around 35% of poll support.

Aggregation of recent polls suggests that Donald Trump commands around 35% support, the religious right group around 30%, and the establishment group around 25%, with Rand Paul in single figures.

In advance of the primaries most expectations are that as unsuccessful candidates withdraw, voters will coalesce to support the leading figure in each group, and that the contest will resolve itself onto one between Donald Trump and the leading religious group candidate Ted Cruz.

One internal problem for the Republicans in 2016 is that their party’s ‘establishment’ of current politicians, party officials, supporting interest groups and media and financial donors seem to be particularly unwilling (at least initially) to support two candidates in particular, and alas these seem to be the very two candidates – Trump and Cruz – currently proving most popular with the voters.

It’s generally believed that most establishment figures would prefer one of the mainstream group candidates, and are waiting to see whether one of them – perhaps Rubio, perhaps Bush – will emerge as the leader of this group.

This means that no matter how well the leaders perform during the season, a general expectation that even the best of them will end up short of 50% of convention delegates is likely to continue right through the primary season.

The result is ongoing uncertainty, encouraging middle-placed candidates to hang on in the contest where they might otherwise have dropped out. It also means persistent damaging attacks on lead candidates by rivals from within their own party – usually regarded as highly undesirable in advance of the real election campaign later in the year.

When the party conventions actually convene in July, by party rules provide for all the delegates to honour their pledges in a first ballot to select the nominee. But if no-one wins 50% of the votes in this first ballot, all bets are off. Most (the by-laws of each state party branch differ) of the delegates are now ‘released’ from their initial loyalty to their candidate and political horse-trading breaks out, possibly requiring multiple ballots before the convention can agree on a single nominee. Such a ‘brokered convention’, as they call it, hasn’t happened in either party for over 60 years. (In 1976 Ronald Reagan nearly stole the nomination from the sitting President Gerald Ford, but that was a simple two-candidate situation where the final result depended on the votes of the unpledged official delegates, not a truly brokered convention.)

The initial convention ballot won’t be fully open to all the original candidates, however. The Republican Party has adopted a new rule on this issue for 2016. The party establishment’s was alarmed at how the 2012 process had unfolded, and also looked forward to the defence of a sitting Republican president in 2016 (which of course did not happen). What concerned them was the prospect of one or more non-establishment candidates winning a number of state primaries and enough delegates to create a brokerage capability at the convention.

As a result, the convention rules (Rule 40)  now require that the nominee must be able to “demonstrate the support of a majority of the delegates from each of eight (8) or more states” (which apparently includes the territory delegations) before their name can be put forward for nomination at the convention. Apparently the former rule had required 5 such delegation majorities, but that rule had never presented a problem in the age of winner-take all primaries where the nomination was wrapped up before the convention started; it was simply a device to prevent nuisance nominees from disrupting the convention. (It’s not clear if the new rule continues to apply to convention ballots in the brokering phase, after the first ballot has failed.)

While theoretically as many as five or six candidates could hold majorities in 8 state/territory delegations, that’s vanishingly unlikely. Many delegations may have such divided delegations that no-one holds a majority in them. The rule is most likely to present the convention with an initial choice between two qualifiers, in which case the first ballot should result in a decision after all. But if there are three qualifiers (or much less likely, four) the first ballot could easily fail, and the convention will indeed become a brokered one.

Of course, if only one candidate qualifies … but we’ll get to that in due course.

US primaries - republican weightings

Relative delegate weightings by state for the Republican Convention of 2016

The Democratic Convention of 2016

US democratic donkey

The Democratic Party Convention will be held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from July 25th to 28th.

In its 2016 primaries and caucuses the the Democratic party has moved entirely to proportional election of delegates. In every state both district and statewide delegates are awarded to all candidates who achieve at least 15% of the vote.

In 2016 the party has a very simple candidate contest, with just three nominee campaigns – former First Lady, former Senator for New York and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders, and former Governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley.

As at January 2016 all polling indicate a reasonably close contest between Clinton and Sanders – with Clinton consistently leading – and with O’Malley polling very low scores.

Since both Clinton and Sanders have significant followings, each can expect to pass the 15% delegate-award threshold in every state and in most districts, so the relative delegate totals between the two should be pretty well proportional across the whole contest. By contrast, O’Malley may struggle to achieve 15% of the vote and therefore any delegates in many states and districts.

Analysts generally agree that with a built-in lead among unelected official delegates to the convention (of the 15% of delegates who are unelected, nearly half have already publicly flagged their support for Clinton, while virtually none have endorsed Sanders or O’Malley), Hillary Clinton is the most likely to prevail.

Conversely for Bernie Sanders to win the nomination, he will need to beat Hillary Clinton in the elected delegate count by around 55%-45% as the contest unfolds.

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Relative delegate weightings by state for the Democratic Convention of 2016



1. The first four states

US primaries 2016 - phase 1

The contest opens in four states during February. By tradition Iowa holds the first caucuses, New Hampshire the first primary, and North Carolina and Nevada follow. Since these initial contests give voters in these states increased influence on how the nomination process unfolds, other states have sought early dates as well. In preparation for 2016 both parties have declared that no state may hold its primaries or caucuses until the beginning of March, but these four states are specifically excluded from the rule.

The four first states are all smaller states from different parts of the nation, which makes them a diverse stating point. They have in common that they are generally demographically older and whiter than the American national average.

In the Democratic contest, these states amount to just 3.3% of the total convention delegate count. Predictions for the relative votes of Clinton and Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire vary, but the contest may be close. Clinton is expected to do better in South Carolina and Nevada. Of the 156 delegates available, a reasonable starting prediction might be something like Clinton 85, Sanders 60, O’Malley 10. Including her bumper crop of around 330 unelected delegate endorsements, by the end of February serious analysts will therefore be reporting the state of the contest as Clinton 415, Sanders 60, O’Malley 10. O’Malley may withdraw (‘suspend his campaign’, as they say) at this point.

In the Republican contest, these states amount to 5.1% of the total convention delegate count. Polls indicate Trump leading in most states, with Cruz possibly beating him in Iowa. But the room for late surprises, and the jostling for other prominent places behind the leader, is intense.

One of the curiosities of the system will be the way in which voters from politically disengaged working class backgrounds vote in the states with ‘open’ contests. Such voters have reasons to be attracted to the lead candidates in both parties – the Republican Donald Trump and the Democratic Hillary Clinton. New Hampshire is partially open, and South Carolina is open. To the extent that party registration status needs to be officially recorded in each state, these contests may, probably several days after voting day, yield some significant data about late party registration changes. If such data can be associated with a vote surge for either  Trump or Clinton, this may provide signals for how a November contest between the two may play out.


2. March 1st: Super Tuesday across the South

US primaries 2016 - phase 2

The contest gets more serious on March 1, the biggest single day of the primary calendar. It includes a broad sweep of states in the South – Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia – as well as five diverse others including Colorado, Minnesota, Virginia, Massachusetts and Vermont. In most cases both party’s events will be held, although the Republicans will also hold their Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming caucuses on this day.

Interestingly, most of the Super Tuesday states are open primaries, which means voters can be choosing from across the whole range of Republican and Democratic candidates.

By the end of this day 21% of the Democratic convention delegates and 32% of the Republican convention delegates will have been won by candidates.

In the Democratic contest, orthodox analysis would generally conclude that most of these states will favour Clinton over Sanders. Of course the exception will be Sanders’ small home state of Vermont. Supposing Clinton wins around 335:275 of the 610 delegates awarded this day, her lead in analysts’s totals will grow to 750 to 335 over Sanders. Even a broad March 1st 60/40 result favouring Sanders – at this stage very much an outlier possibility – would see the running delegate total stand at around 660 Clinton to 420 Sanders.

If Sanders does not prevail over Clinton in progressive Massachusetts, it will be hard to believe that a Sanders surge is occurring, or is capable of occurring in the weeks ahead.

Unless there is a major change in his fortunes, Martin O’Malley might at very best have secured 50 delegates so far, and will most likely withdraw. Only if Clinton and Sanders seem to have close delegate counts – which is probably impossible at this stage – is there reason for O’Malley to continue to compete. Only if there is a meaningful prospect of him having a delegate count with the balance of power at the convention will his donors continue to invest, and O’Malley have reason to bother. Since even a major surge in support for Sanders cannot bring the Clinton-Sanders delegate totals into close alignment until much later in the season, the prospect of such an O’Malley role seems incapable of becoming realistic early enough to prevent his withdrawal at this point, or some point soon after.

As for the Republican contest, it would be reckless to make predictions, but March 1st should shake out the contest very significantly in one dramatic evening. The notion that Cruz will emerge as the leader of the religious right group may well be confirmed in these generally conservative states.

The similar question of whether one leader is emerging from the establishment group will be crucial; if this fails to happen, supporters of this group will start to experience significant existential dismay.

These states aren’t necessarily Donald Trump’s industrial heartland, but there’s no reason to think he will do poorly.

Ted Cruz has his home state of Texas on this date. It would be a major blow to his credibility if he isn’t the lead candidate there.

Since all results are proportional in districts and in statewide allocation of delegates, several candidates can be expected to score some of the 653 delegates on offer. But in many districts and indeed states, most candidates will fail to secure the thresholds for delegates awards (which vary from 5% to 20%). Only Trump can be confident of some delegate allocations almost everywhere, which should inflate his total results relative to all other candidates. This threshold could prove decisive not so much in lifting Trump to an actual majority, but in culling and cribbing results for all 11 other candidates. Cruz and perhaps Rubio (if he is the leading establishment figure) may benefit by being lifted above their intra-group rivals, even if they are disadvantages in respect of Trump.

In any case, when the dust settles it’s hard to imaging that all 12 Republican candidates will still appear viable. Expect up to 5 withdrawals, and possibly more, on March 2: Gilmore certainly, Fiorina, Huckabee, Santorum, perhaps Carson and Kasich.

Perhaps Rand Paul also, although his more distinct support base, and his distinct political mission, may inspire him to hang in there not in the hope of winning the nomination, but of securing enough delegates to play a convention brokering role in July.


3. Early March

US primaries 2016 - phase 3

In the week and a half following 1 March, various scattered primaries and caucuses take place, with no particular regional theme. There are 6 Democratic events, lifting their delegate total to 28%, and 11 Republican events (including DC and the Puerto Rico and Guam territories), lifting its delegate count to 45%. Except for Michigan, the numbers of delegates are not large anywhere.

On the Republican side, this interval may see the consequences of post March 1st-withdrawals come into focus, as withdrawing candidates possibly offer endorsements of continuing former rivals. Thus begins the period of brokerage outside of the direct voting.

Rand Paul’s state of Kentucky is in this period; a poor result there would be damaging to any delegate-collection strategy he is pursuing.

Michigan should be a test of Trump’s appeal to economically worried working class voters.

Another dialogue may begin to emerge in the Republican race by about this point. Recall the rule mentioned earlier that a Republican candidate must hold the support of a majority of the delegates in at least 8 jurisdictions to be eligible to be made party nominee at the July convention. If the race is still close, this rule will progressively be brought into commentary and predictions, as there will by now be enough results to begin to indicate indicate who will and won’t meet this rule.

In particular, the 5 oversees territory, with very small populations, may get a mention. For the Republicans, Puerto Rico is decided on 6 March, Guam on 12 March, the Marianas on the 15th, the Virgin Islands on the 19th and finally American Samoa on the 22nd. All are characterised by significant hispanic populations, and as of January Ted Cruz is reported to have  been investing wisely in these contests. They only have a small number of delegates on offer, but their contribution to the ‘eight-delegation-majorities’ rule could become significant.

Winning eight seats will be a significant flag in each candidate’s race. Once that mark is reached, the candidate qualifies, and this may add to their bandwagon effect, increasing their vote in future races over not-yet-qualified opponents. Conversely, so long as a candidate is yet to reach the mark, their viability as a candidate will be in doubt, potentially reducing their votes.

Over on the Democratic side, the ongoing issue is can Sanders generate a surge to overtake Clinton. There is not much for him to work with here; perhaps Maine. But the scattered nature of events, and generally modest numbers of delegates, mean that this is unlikely to be a period which shifts the fortunes of the contest. Sanders will most likely be waiting for Clinton to experience some damaging event for her own campaign, rather than having much ability to direct events.


4. 15 March – the big swing states

US primaries 2016 - phase 4

Things get serious again on 15 March, another major voting day with 5 states, all middle-sized to large in population – Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri.

What is perhaps most significant about these states is that apart from Illinois they are all contestable in the final November election. Failure to do well today would leave lagging candidates with little basis on which to continue their campaigns.

By the end of this day 42% of the Democratic convention delegates and 59% of the Republican convention delegates will have been won by candidates.

In the Republican contest a significant shift now is that from this date onward states are allowed to award their delegates on the old-fashioned winner-take all manner, rather than proportionally. Only North Carolina is proportional today. This means that candidates can achieve surges in their delegate tally merely through close results. But if two or more candidates achieve such surges across the five states, that may not result in an overall total surge. In any case, matters become more brutal from here on for the Republicans.

Florida will be particularly significant as the home state of the leading establishment figures Marco Rubio (current Senator) and Jeb Bush (former Governor), assuming neither had withdrawn to date. The delegate rule for the state is winner-take-all. Whichever fails to carry their state in the Republican contest would seem to take a serious blow; if neither do so, the establishment group is seriously damaged.

Ohio, also a winner-take-all state, is Governor John Kasich’s home state. I doubt he has survived this long, but if both of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have performed poorly in earlier phases, could Kasich have survived to become the standard-bearer of the increasingly desperate establishment group?

Where will the Democratic contest stand? With only two significant candidates, by this point it should become clear where Clinton and Sanders stand in proportion to one another. If Sanders has been consistently beating Clinton 60/40 for the whole contest so far, Clinton’s unelected delegate head start will be steadily diminishing and the contest will start to seem dramatically close. In any other case, the inevitability of a Clinton win will be everyone’s expectation. That would appear from this perspective – writing in late January – to be a very high threshold for Sanders to reach.


5. Late March into early April

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During a three-week quieter period including events on 22 March, 26 March and several other days, various small and medium states get cleaned up. The vague pattern is that several are Mountain states, and there are none in the south or east of the country. Arizona, Utah and Wisconsin are common to both parties. The Democrats also hold their events in Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming.

By the end of this day 50% of the Democratic convention delegates and 65% of the Republican convention delegates will have been won by candidates.

There are no candidate home states in these weeks, and no reason why any particular day should seem significant. Perhaps a few more Republican withdrawals may occur as the strain of continuing to expend resources over three weeks, for little hope of game-changing events, disheartens the hindmost in the remaining Republican pack.


6. April 19: New York

US primaries 2016 - phase 6

New York, alone, holds it’s closed primaries on 19 April. Both parties award their delegates proportionally. In the Republican race almost all delegates are awarded in districts, and relatively few on the basis of the statewide vote, so the delegates awarded could well be fragmented among multiple candidates, depending on who remains in the race.

Apart from it’s large haul of delegates – 5.2% of total Democratic convention delegates and 3.3% of the Republicans’ – this contest has special significance if the front runners are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on this day: both have long been based in New York. (And by the by, Bernie Sanders grew up in Brooklyn.) The question of which of these two leading candidates working class voters will choose to support will come into sharp focus.

New York hasn’t voted for a Republican in the general election for many years; the question of whether Trump could beat Clinton here in November will animate curious minds.

For both parties this is a closed primary. New voters, and any changes in voter registration regarding party affiliation, must be registered by 25 March.

This means that over the last 4 weeks of campaigning, voters will be locked into choosing either a Republican or a Democratic candidate or – if their affiliation is ‘undeclared’ or for another party – locked out from supporting either. There can be no late voter decisions between Trump and Clinton.

By the end of this day 55% of the Democratic convention delegates and 69% of the Republican convention delegates will have been won by candidates.


7. 26 April: the north-east

US primaries 2016 - phase 7

A cluster of 5 north-eastern states vote on 26 April: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Pennsylvania is a contestable state in November; the other four are safe Democratic states.

By the end of this day 64% of the Democratic convention delegates and 76% of the Republican convention delegates will have been won by candidates.

Nearly there…but not just yet…


8. late primaries in May and early June

US primaries 2016 - phase 8

Now follows 5 weeks of relative inactivity; a total of six states, some of them one-party events: Washington and Nebraska (for the Republicans), Kentucky (for the Democrats) and Oregon, Indiana and West Virginia (for both).

The delegate numbers awarded in this period are all middle-sized. By the end of this day 70% of the Democratic convention delegates and 83% of the Republican convention delegates will have been won by candidates.


9. June 7: California and the final states

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Finally, the contest ends with a bang on 7 June: Today sees the primary in California, by far the largest state in terms of delegates for both conventions. There are five other final state primaries as well: Montana, North DakotaSouth Dakota, New Mexico, and substantially sized New Jersey.

In ordinary terms, California would be considered a massive prize. But it’s traditional position very late in the primary calendar, together with the past habit of awarding state delegates on a winner-take-all basis, has usually meant that the race is wrapped up weeks earlier than now, leaving California’s vote irrelevant.

This year may be different, for one or both parties.

It’s almost certain that the Republican race won’t be wrapped up by now, as is traditionally the case. We said a moment ago that the tally of pledged delegates at the end of the last phase was 71% of the convention total. To have wrapped up the race, a candidate would need to have won around 70% of all those delegates to be certain. This is almost impossible, due to the fact that there are so many candidates in the starting field, and that 46% of delegates are awarded in states proportionally.

The leading candidate might make up some of the difference by securing some of the 18.5% of convention delegates who are unpledged. Except that the leading candidate is likely to be Donald Trump, whom most of the unelected delegates seem to be desperate to avoid. At the least, unelected delegates have little reason to positively commit to Trump before the end of the primary season.

So for the Republicans, California should remain in play. Like New York, most of the delegates will be awarded based on votes in districts, not statewide; if three or more candidates are still in the race, the delegates won could continue to be disbursed across them. California Republicans include some of the most moderate and least religious across the nation. Is this the last chance for an establishment candidate, limping along in the wake of Trump and Cruz, if not to win at least to position himself (or herself? – Carly Fiorina is from California – could she possibly have survived this long?) for the convention brokerage phase.

Or in New Jersey, could Chris Christie achieve a valuable late surge in his home state? Will he still be around at this point?

As for the Democratic race, in which delegates will have been proportionally allocated between Clinton and Sanders the whole way through, California will have it’s fair share of influence – unless Clinton has already wrapped up the numbers. It seems hard to conceive that Sanders would have wrapped up a majority, and completely overtaken Clinton’s unelected delegate support, before California votes.

One way or another, the contest for elected delegates wraps up in early June. At it’s completion, 95% of the delegates to the Republican convention and 85% of delegates to the Democratic convention have been awarded to specific candidates.

It is likely that the Republican race will not have a single candidate with a majority of votes.

On the other side, it is almost certain that the Democratic candidate will be known now. We saw earlier up that even with just two key candidates the Democratic party contest is significantly affected by the fact that half of the 15% of delegates who aren’t elected, or pledged to support specific candidates, had endorsed Hillary Clinton by January, making the threshold for Sanders to win the nomination substantially higher during the primary elections. Only if Sanders and Clinton are very close and the unelected delegates yet to commit, plus perhaps a small sliver of O’Malley delegates, will the Democratic nomination still hang in the balance.

The surviving campaigns have around 6 weeks to make their weary way to Cleveland or Philadelphia for the conventions themselves.


After the voting: the Convention floor

Exhausted yet? Everyone in America will be.

If the above preview holds, the Republican nomination will remain unresolved, and the candidates will still be attacking one another and jockeying for endorsements.

Meanwhile the Democratic nominee should be able to prepare with minimal fuss for their conference.

Moreover, the Democratic campaign and other anti-Republican political interest groups will be free to attack and make mischief with the Republican situation for 6 crucial weeks before the conventions.

The Republican convention, in this situation, will be historically dramatic. Presumably the two delegate-leading candidates will be regarded as framing the remaining choice; possibly a third will be credible. But anything can happen on the convention floor.

The delegate blocks for the minor candidates, including those who withdrew during the primary season, will now form an extraordinary assembly of factions, the sizes of which will be only roughly proportional to voter support for the candidates. The 18% of delegates who are unpledged will assume great significance, but they too may be highly divided on what to do.

The result will involve extensive political horse trading. The position of vice-presidential candidate will become one key bargaining chip, although some candidates – particularly Donald Trump – would have no interest in it.

As mentioned earlier, only candidates who have the support of a majority of the delegates in at least 8 states or territories will be eligible to win the nomination. If there are two such qualifiers, the decision becomes simple again; the first ballot should decide the result. There will still be brokering and trading for the votes of delegates other than those two, but it will be a simple vote.

If there are three or four qualifiers (any more than that would be highly unlikely), the brokerage phase is on in earnest.

But if there is only one qualifier? If say Trump has won 25 states, and three other candidates have won 7 or 6, with a few other scattered wins… Does Trump claim the nomination by default, even though 60 of voters and the majority of the convention is against his nomination? Would his rivals attempt to rip up the qualification rule on the convention floor to open a path for an agreed alternative? And if it did, would that give Trump both motive and justification to break from the Republicans and run an independent third campaign after all?

All speculation at this stage. What what is clear – indeed it is the historical highlight of this campaign – is that the establishment no longer controls the process. More than merely the establishment having to concede some influence to the religious movement in the party, as has happened before, it’s now quite possible that both the establishment and the religious element will have lost control to outright insurgents, represented by Donald Trump.

If by the end of the Republican party convention the establishment, and mainstream ‘moderate’ Republicans, have failed to impose their will on the nominee selection, the rupture will go to the heart of the party’s very nature.

The difficulty for the Republicans will be to emerge from this process with the minimal degree of anger and disillusionment in their own voter base, with a coherent product to attract major donors, and above all with a nominee team which can attract the swinging American voter in November’s election. From here, it looks to be a big ask.


In all of this preview, I have made only minimal comment about the actual political positions and ideologies of the candidates. This primary season – certainly on the Republican side – seems to be as much about identity, character, motivation and pure bombast as it is about policy.

Nor have I attempted to analyse the impact of the staggering cost of running these campaigns. Again, the Republican side will tax it’s financial supporters patience to fund an unnaturally large list of candidates, and waste large sums attacking one another rather than preserving resources to fight the Democratic party. It may well be – out of clear public view – that doner decisions, particularly to deny of funds and veto candidates, may have an major impact on events.

Finally, I’ve not commented on the possibility of candidates stepping on political land mines – major gaffes, or the sudden discovery of dramatic personal or financial scandals.

Donald Trump in particular would seem to be a magnet for such possibilities, but his colourful personal history might well already be well enough known that little would now shock his potential supporters.

Hillary Clinton’s political life extends back around 40 years, and has already been scrutinised by friends and foes in great detail. Her negatives may already have been priced in to the public’s assessment of her.

As for the others, anything is possible.

The dark cloud hanging over American politics seems to be anger, visceral and unappeasable, and aimed particularly at the political establishment. The strategy in this election, at least in it’s primary season, seems to depend much less on policy issues as on how to resist that anger – or how to harness it.
– 19 January 2016


PS: I’ll post updates on the progress of the nomination race here.


More on this subject…

⇒  Experienced Republican operative (and former legal adviser to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney) Benjamin Ginsberg’s preview of the primary season in Politico (20 January 2016) also concludes that the Republican race will be unlike any other in living memory.

⇒  A lengthy November 2015 piece by Matthew Boyle in the conservative Breitbart News discusses the prospect of a brokered Republican convention; indeed, this report credits the just-mentioned Benjamin Ginsberg with persuading the Republican National Committee to adopt the ‘8-state-delegations’ rule for candidates to qualify to win the nomination ballot at the convention.

⇒  See also a March 2014 report in US News and World Report covering the revised Republican convention rules by David Catanese, which particularly examines the ‘8-state-delegations’ requirement.

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