Josh Putnam is a lecturer in the Political Science Department at the University of Georgia. But, to political junkies, he's better known as the founder of Frontloading HQ (FHQ, for short), a site that tracks the presidential primary calendar and all that comes with it. With a renewed focus on the possibility of an open convention on the Republican side, I reached out to Josh to get his sense of the nominating calendar and when we might know the nominees for each party. Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: Last week I made a prediction that Republicans would head to Cleveland with no candidate having enough delegates to be the nominee. How likely do you think that scenario is as of today? Why?
Putnam: I am not an oddsmaker by trade, but I would place the chances of an inconclusive primary season in 2016 at slim. Chaos or what seems like chaos now may not be nearly so chaotic once votes begin to be cast in the coming months. Many would point toward the field winnowing, and while that is likely a component part of what's to come, I would point toward the design of the process as the main reason why the nomination is likely to resolve itself during primary season rather than at the convention.
Institutionally, this is a sequential process. That will have observers both casual and involved evaluating the winners and losers every week during February and every few days during March. Falling into that "loser" category, especially a pattern of losing, places a great deal of pressure on candidates and their campaigns to reevaluate where they are in the race and whether they should continue. Sure, many have been doing this for months, but when there are actual wins and losses and even delegate deficits to consider, the calculus changes for the campaigns.
Contrast this sequence with a national primary. If the Republican candidates were working toward a national primary on February 1, one in which the entire nation was voting rather than just Iowa, then I would be much more inclined to say that the apparent chaos of today would translate to structural chaos next month. That is one of the reasons the national parties will likely never gravitate toward a national primary. It would give them fewer checks on out-of-control nomination races.
FIX: Explain how the Republican National Committee tried to tweak the nominating calendar in the run-up to 2016 in terms of delegate allocation. Why isn’t it working? Or is it?
Putnam: Without getting too far down in the weeds, the idea was to compress the calendar in order to resolve the nomination more quickly. The impetus behind this was perhaps twofold. First, the party wanted to, in August 2012, protect a President Romney from any outside challenger to the 2016 Republican nomination. But the RNC also wanted a rapid resolution to their process preemptively in response to a quick Democratic and/or Hillary Clinton nomination.
To accomplish that, the RNC upped the penalty on would-be rogue states; states scheduling primaries or caucuses too early and in violation of the party's delegate selection rules. That has worked. Iowa will not kick things off until February 1. Compare that to the January 3 start the process had in both 2008 and 2012. On the back end of the calendar, the RNC also scheduled an earlier convention. In between those two bookends, the Republicans tightened the definition of proportionality -- what constitutes the proportional allocation of delegates -- but shrunk the window on the calendar in which states are required to proportionally allocate their delegates.
Now, is any of this working as planned? Yes, and we don't know. As for the yes, again, the calendar plan has worked. Nobody jumped in the queue like Florida did in 2008 and 2012, pushing the start of primary season into early January. As for the other changes, it is too early to say. Many will contend that the proportionality requirement will slow things down and keep the outcome inconclusive. Maybe. Without early winner-take-all contests, the acquisition of delegates will slow to some extent, but the Democratic Party has had a blanket proportionality requirement with a stiffer definition of "proportional" for years. Even with that and in combination with unpredictable races, they have managed to reach a resolution to each of their nominations without taking it to the convention.
FIX: Everyone focuses on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. What do you think the most important date or state is in the Republican nominating calendar? What about on the Democratic side?
Putnam: It's hard not to look at March 1. That is a date that will separate the wheat from the chaff from an organizational standpoint. One can envision a candidate winning in Iowa or New Hampshire and sustaining that to South Carolina or Nevada. But making the jump from a singular contest to contest sequence to a large group of contests on the same date is something else entirely. That exerts a great deal of organizational pressure on campaigns. If one campaign or group of campaigns have it and others do not, those who are better organized deeper into the calendar will be advantaged.
On the Democratic side, all eyes seem to be on South Carolina and probably rightfully so. When the calendar shifts from Iowa and New Hampshire to the Sun Belt, the electorate will be much more diverse whether in Nevada on February 20 or South Carolina on February 27. [Democratic candidate Bernie] Sanders will either answer that challenge or he won't.
FIX: It’s March 2. Who are the three Republican candidates with the most delegates? And, why?
Putnam: While I would be surprised if Ted Cruz is not there, Iowa and New Hampshire will have much to say on the matter. The Cruz campaign has all the earmarks of a very well organized campaign. They really seem to know the rules of the process. And while they are not alone in that regard, the southern terrain suits the Texas senator well. So Cruz is one.
Second, it should be noted that the winner of the South Carolina primary on February 20 is going to be the leader in the delegate count heading into the SEC primary on March 1 by virtue of the modified winner-take-all method Palmetto State Republicans utilize. The winner in South Carolina will also be there on March 2. Yes, that may be Ted Cruz, so I am bending the rules a bit here.
Finally, someone is going to win New Hampshire. Maybe that will be [Donald] Trump, maybe it won't be. If Trump wins New Hampshire, he will be around and probably in decent shape in the delegate count come March 2. Should he come up short, though, some so-called establishment candidate will fill the void and likely contend with Cruz and/or the South Carolina winner thereafter.
FIX: Finish this sentence. A Republican candidate gets the required number of delegates to be the nominee on _________________. Tell me why you chose that date.
Putnam: Follow the 50-75 Rule. In the past two cycles, the leader in the delegate count at the point on the calendar in which 50 percent of the total number of delegates have been allocated has gone on to clinch the nomination by the point on the calendar in which 75 percent of the delegates have been allocated. In 2008, [John] McCain clinched in early March. In 2012, [Mitt] Romney wrapped things up in Texas on May 29. In both cases, that was around the date on the calendar in which 75 percent of the delegates had been allocated. Both had been leading in the delegate count at the 50 percent mark on the calendar.
For 2016, the 50 percent barrier falls on March 15, a date on the current calendar that will feature a number of clustered winner-take-all states (Florida and Ohio). The 75 percent point is on April 26 when a number of northeastern and mid-Atlantic states will hold concurrent primaries. We may or may not know the outcome by then, but there is some evidence to suggest that a candidate will have clinched by around April 26.