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Six Surprising Takes on The GOP Nomination Contest

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I direct FairVote, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization known for its innovative analysis and state and local successes in advancing electoral reforms like instant runoff voting, the National Popular Vote plan, proportional representation and steps toward universal voter registration and a right to vote in the Constitution.

We are closely tracking this year's presidential nomination contest, with frequent commentaries and updated resources. See our 2012 Presidential Nomination page for more. Here are six takes on the GOP nomination contest, from how convention delegate allocations are not reflecting the party's goal of proportional representation to the role of campaign spending and voter turnout.

Winner Take Too Much? GOP delegates don't reflect proportional representation

This year there has been much talk of the impact of new rules governing the Republican presidential contest adopted by the Republican National Committee in 2010. The new rules seek 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 new rules also require states holding contests before April 1st to use proportional representation to allocate delegates (meaning theoretically that 25% of the vote earns 25% of delegates).

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 mean 100% of delegates if that candidate led the field). But proportionality in this year's contests is in the eyes of the beholder. Some states like Oklahoma have rules that truly reflect that goal, 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. A few examples:

  • In Georgia, Rick Santorum won 19.7% of the vote, compared to Mitt Romney's 25.9%. But Romney won 13 delegates, compared to Santorum's two.
  • Santorum won Oklahoma with 34% of the vote and took 34% of the state's 41 delegates. He won Tennessee with 37% of the vote, but earned fully 58% of its 43 delegates.
  • In Virginia, Romney defeated Ron Paul 59% to 41% -- yet won 43 of 46 delegates.
  • In South Carolina, Newt Gingrich won 23 of 25 delegates with only 40% of the vote.

FairVote has 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 and if all states used a proportional method of allocation based on each state's popular vote.

  • Mitt Romney
  • 38.90% if fully proportional
  • 54.70% under current rules
  • 57.30% if winner-take-all
  • Rick Santorum

  • 25.40% if fully proportional

  • 24.40% under current rules

  • 29.80% if winner-take-all
  • Newt Gingrich

  • 18.20% if fully proportional

  • 14.20% under current rules

  • 12.90% if winner-take-all
  • Ron Paul
  • 16.6% if fully proportional
  • 6.4% under current rules
  • 0% if winner-take-all

Contrary to what many outlets are saying, the actual delegate count is far closer to what it would have been if winner-take-all rules had been used rather than a fully proportional system. Under all three scenarios, Rick Santorum gets between 25% and 30% of the vote. The big difference would be that Ron Paul, who has not won a contest, would have no delegates and would have far more delegates with a proportional system. Using a proportional system that accurately reflected voter preference to date, Mitt Romney would go from 54.7% of delegates down to 38.9% of delegates. Winner-take-all would only give him a boost of 2.6% in his delegate share.

To see a full state-by-state analysis, visit here.

Plurality Rules? How GOP voting system can turn losers into winners

The Republican candidates have contested 22 states through March 6th. Only five states have been won with more than 50% of voters: Mitt Romney winning in his home state of Massachusetts (72.2%), in Virginia (59.9%, where having only two candidates and a ban on write-ins made a majority win inevitable) and in three western states with strong Mormon populations, Nevada (50.1%) , Wyoming (55.7%) and Idaho (61.6%). The remaining states have all been "won" with less than 50%, including Iowa with less than 25%. On Super Tuesday, a majority of the 11 contests were "won" by a candidate who earned less than 40% of votes cast:

  • Alaska: Romney "won" with 32.6%, ahead of Santorum with 29.0% and Paul with 24.0%
  • Ohio: Romney "won" with 37.9 % to Santorum with 37.1% and Gingrich with 14.6%
  • Oklahoma: Santorum "won" with 33.8% to Romney with 28.0% and Gingrich with 27.5%
  • Tennessee: Santorum "won" with 37.3% to Romney with 28.0% and Gingrich with 24.0%
  • Vermont: Romney "won" with 39.8% to Paul with 25.5% and Santorum with 23.6%

It's a near-certainty that several of the 17 plurality-win states were "won" by a candidate who would have lost if matched that day against their top opponent. Such "spoiler" dynamics allowed by the current voting system are widely understood, but rarely questioned as undercutting the legitimacy of outcomes. Consider excerpts from two columns in the Washington Post this week by E.J. Dionne and Harold Meyerson:

  • Dionne: "Romney has managed to live all this down because of the shortcomings of his more conservative opponents and because Rick Santorum and New Gingrich continue to split the Republican right. Between them, Santorum and Gingrich secured 52 percent of the vote in Ohio to Romney's 38 percent. But Romney's share was just enough, because Gingrich siphoned off nearly a third of that 52 percent."
  • Meyerson: Gingrich's role as the primary season winds on has been reduced to depriving Santorum of the votes the former senator needed to best Romney. (Indeed, you have to wonder if Sheldon Adelson -- a casino operator how knows how to play the odds -- keeps funding Gingrich's super PAC to help Romney beat Santorum."

This siphoning of votes and potential super PAC skullduggery is a direct product of a voting system that doesn't require a true majority of the first round vote to "win" a state. Given that states could not easily hold runoff elections for nominations, instant runoff voting would be a sensible system for determining the real preferences of voters in each state contest. It's already used by Utah Republicans in many of their internal elections and has been adopted in a growing number of U.S. cities and other nations.

Voter Turn-off? Voter turnout down overall and in single digits in key contests

Americans' disenchantment with their political system is reflected by historically low favorability ratings for Congress, but also threw a more concrete measurement: voter turnout. Turnout lagged in major races for governor and mayor last year, hitting historic lows in gubernatorial races in West Virginia, Kentucky and Louisiana and in mayoral race after mayoral race. With some exceptions, the Republican contest is the same despite more voters being available to vote in the Republican field because the Democratic primaries are uncontested.

Turnout in the 22 states to date is down almost 10% from those same states in Republican contests in 2008, with turnout in a third of those states dropping by more than 20%. Consider these turnout figures, as detailed by George Mason professor Michael McDonald with participants as percentage of all eligible voters in that state:

  • North Dakota: 2.2% in Republican-only caucus
  • Alaska: 2.6% in Republican-only caucus
  • Idaho: 4.1% in Republican-only caucus
  • Virginia: 4.6% in Republican-only primary
  • Mass.: 10.8% in Republican-Democratic primary

The highest state turnout on Super Tuesday? Georgia, which still had only 15.8% of its eligible voters participate in a major party primary. This numbers suggest what many expect to be true: turnout will be down this November from the 61% rate of participation in 2008.

Does Money Buy Elections? Don't tell that to Rick Santorum

The Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case in 2010 is likely to unleash more money in politics than ever before, especially in the form of spending by super PACS and 501(c)(4) organizations that can receive unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and unions. The debate over Citizens United is intense, but we should keep in mind the undeniable fact that in most elections, relatively few voters make their decisions based on campaign spending in their state or district. That voter consistency in the face of big spending is what makes most states "safe" in presidential elections. It's what makes partisan gerrymandering such an effective tool.

The Republican contest provides a window into how money matters -- and how it doesn't matter. If as a thought experiment one were to reverse the money raised by Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum for their own campaigns and for associated super PACs, there's no doubt that Santorum would have won key contests that he lost -- Ohio and Michigan being the best recent examples. But he still would have lost other contests in states where Romney has a strong base of support. In other words, Romney's huge financial edge only matters in small degrees, not large ones.

Consider the money raised directly by their campaigns, as revealed in the New York Times:

Money raised through January 31:

  • Mitt Romney:63.7 million (10% in gifts under200
  • Ron Paul:31.1 million (46% in gifts under200)
  • Newt Gingrich:18.3 million (48% in gifts under200)
  • Rick Santorum:6.7 million (49% in gifts under200)

Yet despite this deficit (one magnified by super PAC spending), Santorum finished first in Iowa while being heavily outspent by all other major candidates, including Texas governor Rick Perry. On February 7th, just after the January 31 filing period, Santorum swept three contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. Since then, he barely lost in the big battlegrounds primaries of Michigan and Ohio and won in other states like Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota. He's accomplished these strong results despite much less super PAC spending on his behalf, a much-criticized debate performance before the Arizona primary and highly controversial statements about the value of college and the separation of church and state.

What Santorum has to help his candidacy is the endorsement of major evangelical organizations that endorsed him after the Iowa caucuses. He also has had debate performances that, while not necessarily resonating with everyone, connect with key voting blocs within the Republican Party. The votes Santorum has earned in these non-monetary ways does not mean campaign spending doesn't matter. But it does show how money gains its greatest power when shifting a few percentage points can flip a loss into a win.

Paul Up and Romney Down? Compared to 2008, Ron Paul is having the better year

Throughout the 2012 contest, FairVote has tracked how Mitt Romney (see Romney vs. Romney) and Ron Paul (see Paul vs. Paul) have fared when matched against their own performances in 2008. The results may surprise you:

  • Ron Paul is 21-1 compared to 2008: In the 22 contests to date, Ron Paul 2012 has earned a higher percentage of the vote than Ron Paul 2008 in 21 of 22 states. (The only exception is Idaho, where Paul and John McCain were the only active candidates in 2008.)
  • Mitt Romney is 8 - 9 compared to 2008: In the 17 contests to date where Romney also competed as an active candidate in 2008, Romney has improved his share of the vote in eight and earned a lower share in nine.
These comparisons raise an important question: who represents the future of the Republican Party? Does Paul's support have a ceiling, or could another candidate like his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), build on this support in the future? Despite Paul being older as an individual than Romney, his most passionate backers are young. Consider that in the Virginia primary between Romney and Paul, CNN exit polls found that Paul won more than 60% support from voters in the age quadrants of 18-30 and 31-45. Romney's victory depended on winning more than 80% of the vote of voters older than 65. Are Elections Better than Coronations? Don't let insider pundits tell you otherwise

One refrain of Inside-the-Beltway pundits is that Republicans would be better off without an ongoing contest. Looking no further than the latest polls, they assume that dips in overall favorability ratings for frontrunner Mitt Romney indicate that it's the ongoing Republican contest that is his problem. Behind this logic is the implicit assumption that Romney's efforts to earn true majority support in the Republican Party in states across the nation weaken him for the fall campaign -- that the Republican agenda in fact is a minority one, and that the sooner Romney can ignore what many Republicans believe, the better it is for is party.

This same claim was made in 2008 during the Democratic contest: Republican nominee John McCain could bask in his premature victory (one grounded in the GOP's frontloading of winner-take-all contests) while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton contested every contest into June. But it's inconceivable to imagine Barack Obama carrying Indiana and North Carolina in the general election without the intensely competitive primaries in those states. It's also true that competing in all states allowed a relative newcomer on the scene -- a junior senator from Illinois and the nation's first racial minority to be a major party nominee -- to introduce himself directly to more voters, while indirectly introducing himself to the country through ongoing television coverage of the nomination campaign. He also improved as a candidate in debates and in handling adversity.

Mitt Romney may not end up as the Republican nominee. He may not defeat Barack Obama in November. But he would benefit from becoming a better campaigner -- and proving yourself under fire is a great way to do so. As a religious minority (a Mormon), he also can benefit from a campaign to gain more support from more Republican voters, especially evangelical Christians. Come this fall, the narrative of the campaign likely will be either that GOP nominee Romney was ultimately strengthened by this nomination contest or that the party turned to another nominee because Romney was unable to improve as a candidate and connect with enough Republican voters.

Aside from electoral calculations about November, it's a dangerous precedent to suggest it's better to have contests where fewer states and fewer voters matter. Under the current RNC rules, more states will have real contests that matter and, as a result, more voters will matter. In a representative democracy grounded in the values of one-person, one-vote, we should be wary of giving up on the value of giving all voters a chance to make a difference.

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