Wednesday, February 6, 2008

After Super Tuesday: A Lot of Little Races: Or, Is a Brokered Republican Convention Still Possible?

Some are predicting a brokered GOP convention. Some are saying McCain's guaranteed a win. Who's right? Who knows? I sure don't, but here's one possible route to a brokered convention (Note: Possible does not mean probable):

While it may be very hard, if not impossible, for Romney or Huckabee to get an absolute majority of delegates before the convention, it is also possible, in a three-man race, that McCain may still not get an absolute majority, either. McCain’s people are claiming 775 delegates (of the 1191 needed for a majority) and say that 963 are left outstanding. McCain needs to win over 400 (around 40%) of those remaining delegates to get a majority. Has the deal been sealed? Not necessarily.

While, at this point, it seems likely that McCain will win the Republican nomination, particularly with a possible McCain-Huckabee alliance, it is also possible that Huckabee and Romney could together prevent McCain from getting an absolute majority. To do so, they will (combined) need to win nearly 60% of the oustanding delegates.

Virginia with 63 delegates is the only remaining sizable winner-take-all primary state. The rest are some variant on proportional-voting primary systems and caucuses. Louisiana (47d) and Kansas (39d) are both closed primary votes and both include conventions as part of their delegate-selection process; LA also has a proportional primary vote. These caucus states might be in Romney’s favor since he seems to run stronger in caucuses. McCain's present numbers rely heavily on winner-take-all states. The proportional open states cut into the ability of Romney and Huckabee to rack up big numbers, but they also cut into McCain's ability to get big boosts, too. McCain seems very likely to get a number of votes and delegates from those states where all delegates are assigned proportionately, but Romney and Huckabee are likely to score some delegates there, too.

Where could be the real turning point for a hard-fought campaign? Those states following a winner-take-all by Congressional district method of delegate allocation. What right now might be Romney/Huckabee’s best strategy to deny McCain a majority of delegates in those states: to run less a general state-wide campaign and more a number of little congressional campaigns. A number of the upcoming states are winner-take-all by Congressional district: Ohio (88 delegates–March 5), Maryland (37 delegates–Feb. 9), and Wisconsin (40 delegates–Feb. 19). Mississippi (33 delegates–March 10) also relies upon Congressional districts for assigning some delegates. Winner-take-all by Congressional district can lead to candidates with a broad but diffused level of popular support from gaining delegates. For example, McCain won California 42-34, but it looks like he might get 160 delegates to Romney's 10 due to CA's winner-take-all by Congressional district. Numerically close races statewide need not lead to close delegate counters under winner-take-all by CD. If Romney and Huckabee sufficiently concentrate their efforts, they could cut into McCain's delegate counts in these states.

Texas, the biggest outstanding R state, with 140 delegates at stake, has a complicated method of vote distribution. It all depends on if any candidate receives a majority in each Congressional district or statewide:
Each congressional district elects three delegates, for a total of 96.
--If one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in a congressional district, that candidate wins all three delegates.
--If no candidate wins 50% of the vote, but two candidates win 20% or more of the vote, the candidate with the higher vote total wins two delegates and the candidate with the lower vote total wins one delegate.
--If one candidate wins 20% or more of the vote but less than 50%, and no other candidate wins 20% of the vote, the candidate with more than 20% of the vote wins all three delegates.
--If no candidate receives more than 20% of the vote, then the top three vote-getters receive 1 delegate each.

Forty-one delegates are elected statewide, making a cumulative total of 137.
--If one candidate wins a majority of the votes statewide, that candidate gets all 41 delegates.
--If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, but at least one candidate receives 20% or more of the vote, the delegates are awarded proportionately among the candidates receiving 20% or more of the vote.
--If no candidate receives 20% of the vote, all 41 delegates are rewarded proportionately.
50% and 20% are major thresholds for Texas. Congressional-district campaigning could be especially salient there.

McCain’s relying on open primaries as a way of helping him power past Romney. But will Democrats vote Republican when they have their own hard-fought election? Could Romney’s/Huckabee’s dropping out help Obama? A non-contested GOP primary might free up more independents, who often seem to favor Obama. With open primaries, could some of the GOP switch to vote for Clinton?

It’s hard to predict many of these states because there doesn’t seem to be, according to RCP, any recent polling for most of them. Absent any knowledge of public opinion, it’s hard to tell if this district-based strategy could even work. Still, it seems as though it might be structurally possible for Romney/Huckabee to deny McCain a majority of convention delegates.

There's another question: what would a brokered convention ultimately mean? McCain and Huckabee seem to have an alliance, so Huckabee could just throw his delegates to McCain in exchange for a VP nod.

But, if it did come to a brokered convention for the Republicans, things could become very uncertain. Different states have different rules for how bound delegates are to their candidates. Arizona, for example, does not seem to bind its delegates; Texas's delegates are bound for 3 ballots. This site seems to have a reliable breakdown of delegate rules for each state.

This has been a pretty topsy-turvy election cycle so far--why should the fun end now?

(All delegate counts for this post are based on Real Clear Politics's count. Primary allocation rules are based on this helpful index.)