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The GOP nomination math: Confusing and complicated

March 21, 2016 by NCC Staff


As the presidential nomination process heads toward a big April, the twisted math behind picking the next Republican nominee is coming under close scrutiny.

Trump-536The current GOP front runner, Donald Trump, has received most of the votes and delegates in the primaries and caucuses contested so far. Trump has 696 delegates as of March 18th, well ahead of his nearest rival, Ted Cruz, with 424 delegates. That’s led some political observers to say that if Trump’s nomination isn’t inevitable, it is highly likely.

Adding to the confusion is a smaller group of observers who see the possibility of a contested convention in July at Cleveland. Trump needs 1,237 delegates for a first-ballot nomination, and while there are some winner-take-all states coming up, Trump has only taken about 47 percent of possible delegates in the races concluded so far. Using that simple number, these observers think Trump needs to win about 53 percent of the remaining delegates to get that first-ballot nomination.

That is the easy part of the math. Because of the different rules for the remaining Republican primaries and caucuses, there are few clear-cut winner-take-all primaries.

We used the website to look all the primary and caucus rules to get a sense how the voting could progress. There are a lot of variations compared to the Democratic primary system, where the only variables are proportional elections and Super Delegates.

According to the  website, of the 22 states and territories yet to vote for the Republicans, only five have primaries where the one candidate with the most votes in the state automatically gets all the delegates: Arizona, Delaware, Nebraska, New Jersey and South Dakota.

States like Pennsylvania and California, with their huge delegate slates, are considered winner-take-all elections with a catch. In California, there are 53 Congressional districts, each with three votes. The candidate with the most votes within that district gets its three votes. So if Trump wins 25 districts and Cruz wins 25 districts, each gets 75 delegates.

In Pennsylvania, there is a loophole primary, where a proxies for the candidates run in each Congressional district.  But 17 of the state’s 71 delegates go to the winner of the state-wide vote.

And in Trump’s home state, New York, its delegates are part of a winner-take-most process. Of the state’s 95 delegates, 81 are selected in 27 Congressional districts. In each district, if a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, he gets all three votes; if not, the top candidate gets two votes, and second-place finisher gets one vote.

On the surface, it would seem logical that Trump would need to get 53 percent of the popular vote to get 53 percent of its delegates. But using the March 15th Illinois primary as an example, with its loophole, winner-take-all primary rules, Trump took 39 percent of the popular vote but won 78 percent of the delegates. Why? Because Trump swept 10 of the 18 Congressional district races.

Looking at the total remaining delegates remaining, roughly 983 delegates, Trump would need something in the 53-55 percent range to get to the magical 1,237 number. Assuming Trump gets pure winner-take-all states in Arizona and Delaware, and he picks up mandated delegates in Wisconsin, Maryland and Pennsylvania, Trump would be just 405 delegates short of the nomination. And California and its 172 delegates use a format like Illinois that awards all the delegates within each district to one candidate, which favors Trump.

What would hurt Trump could be losses in winner-take-all states New Jersey, Nebraska and South Dakota, and unexpectedly poor showings in the bigger remaining states. Still, in a scenario like that, where Trump gets about 47 percent of delegates, he is short of the nomination by just about 79 delegates. How well Trump will do in a three-candidate contest is another unknown factor.

By April 27, the GOP outcome should be much clearer, since New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Connecticut will have voted in the prior week. The primary season concludes on June 7, with 303 delegates at stake in five states, including California and New Jersey. At that point, if Trump hasn’t secured the nomination, his “number to clinch” will be very clear.

And what do the non-political pundits think, like professional betting outfits that offer people a chance to wager on the primary-season outcome? The website Election Betting Odds analyzes these “prop bets” from, and it lists Trump as a 70 percent favorite to get the nomination. Other betting sites show similar odds.

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