It’s time to amplify something that Josh Putnam has been pointing out for some time now: it just isn’t true that Republican rules are requiring delegates to be apportioned using proportional representation in their presidential primaries this cycle. I’ve been reading a steady stream of analysis based on the idea that proportional delegate allocation will have important effects on the nomination battle. I tend to think that analysis would be overblown, anyway; Democrats have been strictly proportional for years and haven’t exactly produced any deadlocked conventions, nor have they failed to winnow the field rapidly once the voters get involved in Iowa and New Hampshire. But as it turns out, the analysis is all based on a faulty premise. It is correct that Republicans have banned statewide winner-take-all for primaries before April 1, but that’s a fairly minor change to GOP delegate rules, and it’s produced a minor change in how things will be done in 2012.
As Putnam explains in a detailed post that’s a must-read for those interested in the nuts-and-bolts of the nomination process, the really big change in this year’s process is the schedule, which is far more drawn out than it was in 2008 and features a relatively quiet February between the early events and a March 6 Super Tuesday. The truth is that candidates who do badly early have always faced the strong logic of winnowing very quickly. Early winnowing has never been about delegates. Candidates who do badly in Iowa and (if they make it there) New Hampshire drop out because they no longer have the resources — money, media attention, support from party actors — needed to compete seriously in later states. There are seven major candidates now; we’re not likely to have more than three or four after Florida votes on Jan. 31, and most likely we’ll see winnowing even earlier.
What about delegate allocation? The rule change, again, is banning simple winner-take-all. But most Republican primaries didn’t use that method in the past, so they’re not obliged to change. As it turns out, that applies to all the states in January (except for Florida, which, as of now, will be breaking the rules and accepting a delegate penalty). So changes in allocation don’t kick in until March, really. But what happens then is not a wholesale switch-over from statewide winner-take-all to proportional representation. Instead, Republicans have always had a wide variety of methods of allocating delegates, and most of these — including some modified winner-take-all schemes — will still be available.
The upshot of all this is that in most cases, the delegate allocation rules just don’t matter; the winning candidate in most cycles has wrapped it up early and would dominate the eventual delegate count regardless of how delegates were determined. That’s just as likely to happen this time as ever. If two very strong candidates emerge with the resources to fight it out to the end, then the delegate rules might, but probably won’t, affect who wins. And it’s still going to be about as hard as it ever was for a candidate (such as, potentially, Ron Paul) who takes a steady 15 percent or 20 percent in every state to build up enough delegates to seriously threaten to deadlock the convention; just as they did for Republicans in the past, delegate allocation rules will work against that sort of candidate. So, for the allocation rules: no difference in January. No difference in February. Small differences in March. No differences from April on. It’s just not a big deal, and it certainly isn’t a switch from universal winner-take-all to universal proportional representation. And the bottom line is that delegate allocation rules are rarely very important to outcomes, anyway.