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Media Gets It Wrong on Winner-Take-All and Proportional Representation in GOP Contest

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My FairVote colleagues and I have released a new analysis of votes cast in the Republican nomination contest to date and how those votes have translated into delegate totals. FairVote compared the current New York Times tally of delegates to what it would be in two alternative scenarios: if all states used winner-take-all to allocate delegates and if all states used a proportional method of allocation based on each state's popular vote.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, current projected delegate totals for frontrunner Mitt Romney are far closer to what they would have been if every state had used a winner-take-all rule for allocating delegates than if they had used proportional allocation of delegates. Romney's share of delegates currently is projected at 52.1%. If every state and territory had allocated delegates by winner-take-all, his share of delegates would be just 53.0%.

This chart of the results to date includes the major candidates' share of votes cast to date, projected share of delegates won under the current rules, and projected share of delegates won if all the delegates were allocated by winner-take-all in states if allocated by proportional representation.

Republican Nomination Contests through March 13, 2012























 

Total Votes

Current Share of Delegates

Proportional Representation

Winner-Take-All

Mitt Romney

38.5%

52.1%

39.3%

53.0%

Rick Santorum

25.3%

28.0%

27.0%

36.7%

Newt Gingrich

23.4%

14.1%

17.9%

10.2%

Ron Paul

10.5%

5.6%

15.1%

0.0%

Others

1.8%

0.2%

0.7%

0.0%

Uncommitted

0.4%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

In the last few decades before 2012, many early GOP state parties used winner-take-all voting rules where the popular vote winner earned all of that state's delegates (meaning 25% of the vote could win 100% of delegates if that candidate led the field). New rules adopted by the party in 2010 sought to ensure more states have meaningful contests and to delay the start of primary campaigning (a goal undone by Florida keeping its primary in January). The rules theoretically require states holding contests before April 1st to use proportional representation to allocate delegates (meaning that 25% of the vote earns 25% of delegates).

But many state parties have established rules that get far away from the goal of a fair reflection of voter intent. Some states like Oklahoma and Mississippi have rules that truly achieve proportional representation but others like Florida and Arizona have flagrantly violated the rule and allocated all delegates to their statewide winner -- inviting a challenge to those delegates at the Republican convention this summer. In many other states, quirks in their rules, along with a very loose definition of what defines "proportionality," have led to extreme deviations from proportional representation.

Contrary to what many analysts are saying, the actual delegate count for Romney to date is far closer to what it would have been if winner-take-all rules had been used rather than a fully proportional system. If vote tallies had stayed the same, the biggest beneficiary of going to winner-take-all rules would have been Rick Santorum. Currently, his 25.3% of votes cast to date have translated into 28.0% of delegates, but with winner-take-all, that total would have been 36.7%, with most of that advantage coming from losses in delegates for Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich rather than Mitt Romney.

Political insiders who believe that winner-take-all rules would have allowed Mitt Romney to sew up the nomination aren't looking at the numbers. Mitt Romney's problem isn't the rules. It's the fact that he has earned just 38.5% of Republican votes cast so far and lost numerous states.

Reviewing the numbers also shows the difference between contests in low-turnout caucuses and higher-turnout primaries. Ron Paul's share of delegates would have had the biggest increase with proportional allocation of delegates, earning nearly as many as Newt Gingrich's share despite Gingrich having 23.4% of votes cast so far to Paul's 10.5%. Paul would have been benefited by his relative strength in low-turnout caucus states.

Looking to the future, I've proposed in recent commentaries that parties move to a system where states hold their contests to winnow the field to the top three candidates, and those candidates run in a national primary to select a winner using instant runoff voting. The latest numbers and recent polls of Republican voters underscore the value of this proposal.

First, unlike political insiders, Republican voters are not unhappy with the nomination contest. In a recent Gallup poll, only 20% would like it to be over with Mitt Romney as the nominee. More than half do not want either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum to drop out.

Second, neither the current rules nor the pre-2012 rules are generating a consensus nominee. In 2008, John McCain did not win half of all votes cast in Republican contests, which marked the first time in Republican Party history that its presidential nominee did not win the votes of more than half of voters in its contests. This year, no candidate has even 40% of votes cast to date.

That's why I like a series of reform ideas. First states should use instant runoff voting in their contests. They would allocate delegates by proportional representation based on first choices and then turn to instant runoff voting to determine the state's winner as a clearer measure of voter preference. After all votes are over in all of the states, with a fair calendar of contests, there then would be a national primary among the top three finishers with an instant runoff ballot. In that final vote everyone would participate on an equal basis and allow the party to identify its most representative nominee.

For more on FairVote's 2012 nomination analysis and numbers, please visit our primary resource webpage.

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