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Proportionality Makes GOP Race Less Competitive

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The Republican primary race this election year was planned in advance to be more competitive and less of a "coronation" of whichever candidate emerged as the early frontrunner. Republicans had looked at the 2008 Democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and concluded it would serve as a good model for their own next primary season. Two major changes were instituted by the party to further this goal: stretching the primary schedule out, so it wasn't so front-loaded, and making the earlier states award their delegates proportionally, instead of awarding all of them to the winner (even if he or she won by only one vote). Both of these innovative modifications to party rules were meant to make the race "more competitive" and hence more exciting to the viewers at home. During the 2012 race as it has run so far, most political pundits (including me, in all honesty) have repeatedly pointed to these two changes as the reason the race has been so drawn-out. But while we pundits may have been right about the schedule, looking at the actual data on proportionality shows something very counterintuitive: awarding proportional delegates has actually made the race less competitive, not more.

Of course, this depends on how you define the terms "more competitive" and "less competitive," but the upshot is that if all the states that have so far voted had been "winner take all" (or "winner takes all," depending on your grammatical predilection), then Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum would be in an even closer race than they are now. To put this bluntly: if there were no proportional delegates at all, Rick Santorum would be doing a lot better.

To see this, we must examine the data. Delegate counting is something of a wonky artform, and I realize there are many different delegate counts floating around out there, none of which is in any way "official." Complicating the issue further are "unpledged" delegates (or, as Democrats call them for some unfathomable reason, "superdelegates"). To analyze the data, however, we must focus on the state-by-state delegate counts themselves, and ignore the relatively few unpledged delegates.

RealClearPolitics.com is the source for my data (mostly, in case anyone's wondering, because they do such a great job presenting their data and charts so clearly). According to RealClearPolitics, here are the counts so far for state pledged delegates (these will differ slightly from the posted totals at the top of their page, since they add in the unpledged delegates from the bottom of their list):

  • Mitt Romney: 538 (54.1 percent)
  • Rick Santorum: 254 (25.6 percent)
  • Newt Gingrich: 137 (13.8 percent)
  • Ron Paul: 65 (6.5 percent)

(The first figure after the name is the number of delegates won, the second figure is the percent this represents of the total delegates so far awarded.)

Romney has over half the delegates awarded so far, Santorum has almost exactly one fourth, and Gingrich and Paul combined represent a little over one fifth of the total.

Now let's assume that every single state awards all its delegates to the outright winner of the voting. Iowa, for instance, goes to Rick Santorum because, in what passed for an official final total, he was ahead by a handful of votes. Instead of Santorum getting seven delegates, Romney getting six, and Paul picking up one, Santorum would in this case receive all 14. By counting this way, the biggest single-state loser so far would be Santorum, who would lose all 21 delegates he managed to get in Ohio (Romney would get all 59 Ohio delegates, in other words).

If every state in the GOP race so far awarded every delegate to the outright winner of the voting, the totals would then be:

  • Mitt Romney: 563 (56.6 percent)
  • Rick Santorum: 332 (33.4 percent)
  • Newt Gingrich: 99 (10.0 percent)
  • Ron Paul: 0 (0.0 percent)

Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul would, obviously, be the big losers under this system. Instead of a combined 20.3 percent of the vote, they are reduced to a flat 10 percent, from Newt's two wins in South Carolina and Georgia.

But where those delegates would go is rather surprising. Because while Mitt Romney improves only marginally, Rick Santorum jumps from one fourth of the total to one third -- a rather significant change. When looked at as percentages, Rick Santorum is the clear winner, gaining 7.8 percent, while Romney only gains 2.5 percent. When you examine the gap between the two, it clearly shows that the race would be a lot closer than it stands today, if proportional delegates weren't being awarded. The way things stand now, Romney has a 28.5-percent lead, whereas if proportional delegates didn't exist, he'd only be leading Santorum by 23.2 percent -- a tightening of the race by over five points.

Looking at the number of delegates shows the same thing in a different way. If proportional delegates did not exist, Romney would pick up 25 delegates, but Santorum would reap a whopping 78. When the differences between the two are examined, this can also be plainly seen. Romney is currently leading Santorum by 284 pledged delegates. Without proportionality, Romney would only be leading Santorum by 231 pledged delegates.

To put it in plain English rather than mathematical figures, the Republican Party's plan of creating a more competitive race by awarding proportional delegates is simply not working, at least between the two frontrunners. If none of the Republican state contests were proportional, Rick Santorum would be a lot closer to Mitt Romney right now. Proportionality has made for a less competitive race between the two.

There are two counterarguments to make, though, in all fairness. The first is that if you define "competitive" as meaning "more chances for more people in the race," then proportionality is working exactly as designed. Ron Paul has 66 more delegates now than he would if there was no proportionality. Newt Gingrich is stronger by 38 delegates than he otherwise would be. But I sincerely doubt that the Republican National Committee really intended "strengthening third-place and fourth-place candidates" when they came up with this scheme. The model was Clinton vs. Obama, after all.

The second counterargument is a stronger one: proportionality is doing exactly what it was intended to do, by making the race longer. If Mitt Romney had 563 delegates as opposed to 538, he would be closer to the goal of the 1,144 he needs to win a majority of the delegates, and thus the nomination. Now, 25 delegates out of 1,144 isn't all that much, but this effect will get more pronounced the closer Romney comes to securing the "magic number" he needs. To put it another way, the difference between 538 and 563 isn't that big a deal, but the difference between 1,119 and 1,144 is.

The Republican Party's new rules were supposed to allow for the best of both worlds, in a way. States wouldn't be allowed to award delegates non-proportionally before a certain point, but then after that point would be free to do so. This, it was hoped, would wrap the race up so it didn't extend all the way through June. In fact, we are now at this point (the official date is April Fools' Day, but there are no contests currently scheduled until April 3). But of the remaining 23 contests, only seven have chosen to award all delegates outright to the winner. So it's looking more like 2012 will be a test case of proportionality until the very end. Or perhaps not -- the state with the most delegates, California, votes on June 5 and will award all its delegates (an eye-popping 172 of them) to the winner of their primary. While this may put Romney over the top, only one contest is scheduled after California, when Utah votes three weeks later (Utah, it should be noted, is not exactly "in play" for Santorum).

From just over the halfway point in the primary schedule, though, comes a stark reminder in the power of unexpected and unintended consequences. Because while I (and plenty of other pundits out there) have up until now mindlessly bought into the idea that proportionality has made for a more competitive race between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, the actual numbers show that, in fact, the opposite has taken place. With no proportionality, Santorum would be a lot closer to Romney. The gap between them would be smaller. Gingrich would be weaker, and Ron Paul would be irrelevant, but the main contest between the frontrunner and the underdog would undeniably be a closer race.

Chris Weigant blogs at:
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