GOP’s Delegate Allocation Rules Are Helping Trump

Changes that the Republican National Committee made to delegate allocation rules in response to what happened in 2012 are helping Donald Trump in 2016.

2012 GOP Convention

Changes that the Republican National Committee made to the manner in which delegates are allocated in Presidential nomination contests are working in Donald Trump’s favor and appear likely to make him the presumptive nominee sooner rather than later:

Hoping to avoid a repeat of the messy fight for the Republican nomination in 2012, the party drew up a calendar and delegate-selection rules intended to allow a front-runner to wrap things up quickly.

Now, with Republicans voting in 11 states on Tuesday, the worst fears of the party’s establishment are coming true: Donald J. Trump could all but seal his path to the nomination in a case of unintended consequences for the party leadership, which vehemently opposes him.

“Trump has significant advantages, and that’s the way the system is designed,” said Joshua T. Putnam, a political science lecturer at the University of Georgia with an expertise in delegate selection. “It’s right in line with what the folks designing these rules wanted. It’s just not the candidate they preferred.”

As the calendar flips, March brings a whirlwind of states voting on the same days and in quick succession. By the middle of the month, 58 percent of the total delegates will have been awarded, and Mr. Trump could be unstoppable in getting the 1,237 needed to clinch the nomination.

With the exception of Texas, the home state of Senator Ted Cruz, recent polls show Mr. Trump leading in the so-called Super Tuesday states that vote this week, including Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts and Virginia. Though Texas has the most delegates of states voting on Tuesday, 155, they all award delegates proportionally, so that Mr. Cruz will most likely have to share the haul.

The Southern states, with many evangelical Christians, have been the linchpin of Mr. Cruz’s strategy. But after Mr. Trump trounced him in South Carolina on Feb. 20, winning all 50 delegates, Mr. Cruz’s prospects are not as bright. Mr. Trump carries “enormous momentum,” Mr. Cruz admitted on Friday, and if he sweeps Super Tuesday, when more delegates are awarded than on any other day, “he could easily be unstoppable.”

For Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who ferociously challenged Mr. Trump last week in a debate and on the stump, mocking the real estate mogul’s “spray tan” and calling him a “con man,” the path forward is narrowing.

The Rubio campaign is hoping for several things in the coming weeks: that Mr. Cruz will withdraw after a poor finish on Super Tuesday; that Mr. Rubio will carry the moderate states of Minnesota and Virginia that day; and that on March 15 — the first day of voting in big winner-take-all states — Mr. Rubio will sweep the 99 delegates in his home state of Florida.

The likelihood of Mr. Rubio’s or Mr. Cruz’s holding a winning hand after Super Tuesday depends on many wild cards built into the delegate rules.

A majority of the 595 delegates at stake are awarded by congressional districts, with the stinger that, in some circumstances, only the top two finishers receive any at all. The winner of each district gets two delegates, the runner-up gets one and everyone else goes home.

This rule was intended by party leaders to turbocharge the campaign of a front-runner. In effect, a candidate who wins a district with a plurality of only about 33 percent, as Mr. Trump has in earlier states’ primaries, ends up with 66 percent of the delegates.

Mr. Rubio could be all but shut out in Texas if he does not finish higher than third in any of its 36 districts, and if he falls short of 20 percent of the vote statewide, which he needs to qualify for at-large delegates.

The high threshold of 20 percent for at-large delegates also applies in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. If Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz do well in those deeply conservative states, they could deprive Mr. Rubio of much-needed support.

That inhospitable math has left Mr. Rubio hunting for delegates in select congressional districts that favor his center-right conservatism, such as the affluent suburbs of Nashville, Atlanta and in Northern Virginia, where he campaigned on Sunday.

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Ben Carson, a retired surgeon, could be entirely shut out from many Super Tuesday states. Mr. Kasich hopes to hold on until Ohio’s winner-take-all primary on March 15, a state that Mr. Rubio also covets.

“The quest for Rubio or Cruz is to keep Trump’s delegate lead below 200 to 250” on Super Tuesday, said Mr. Putnam, the University of Georgia lecturer. “If they can do that, a scenario where Rubio is able to sweep both Florida and Ohio — that’s 165 delegates — really cuts into a 200-delegate lead and may flip the narrative.”

Conversely, he added, “if Trump is pushing a 300-delegate lead after Super Tuesday, he’ll have a better chance in Florida and Ohio and make it that much more unlikely another candidate will sweep those states.”

The rules this year, intended to bring the race to a swift conclusion, emerged from the ashes of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat. Republican officials said the candidate’s campaign had been damaged by too many debates and by a drawn-out nomination fight that kept alive the hopes — and the attacks — of underfunded challengers.

In 2014, the Republican National Committee rolled out changes compressing the primary calendar and moving up the date of winner-take-all primaries to March 15. Many states, eager for a place in the spotlight, rushed to hold their votes in the first two weeks of March, when delegates are awarded proportionately.

Republican leaders were trying to satisfy two wings of the party: In theory, a shorter calendar favors a well-funded establishment candidate, while proportional delegate selection can bolster a grass-roots conservative.

Above all, party officials hoped to avoid an underdog challenger hanging on until the national convention in July and stealing attention from the presumptive nominee. Paradoxically, this may be the fate of Mr. Rubio, who said on Saturday that he would remain in the race all the way.

“This whole thing is a really messy mixture of unintended consequences,” said Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer in Washington who was national counsel to the Romney campaign. “The R.N.C. put in a system that was designed to let either an establishment figure or a very popular conservative grass-roots figure wrap up the nomination early. And Donald Trump rewrote the rules.”

Andrew McGill makes a similar point at The Atlantic and also notes that the manner in which several Super Tuesday states have established their version of proportional allocation of delegates is perfectly set up for a candidate like Trump, who is likely to dominate the vote not only statewide but also in virtually all of a given state’s Congressional Districts. The result is that it’s entirely possible that even if Trump’s wins tonight end up coming in closer than they are predicted by the polls, he’s still likely to walk away with the lion’s share of the delegates from all eleven states holding contests today, meaning that it will become next to impossible for either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio to catch up to the pace that Trump will have established after his wins in February and his anticipated wins tonight. This will especially be true if Trump manages to pull off a win in Michigan next week and then in Ohio and Florida on March 15th. At that point, the ability of any of these other candidates to catch up to Trump will be somewhere between slim and none, and even threats of a floor fight in Cleveland will sound hollow given that Trump would likely easily be able to get the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot while the other candidates may not even qualify to get on that ballot unless they win a minimum of eight states going forward. At the moment, it is beginning to appear less and less likely that any candidate other than Trump will meet that eight state threshold and thus he would be the only candidate on the ballot when it come time for delegates to vote.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, of course. Originally, the rule changes regarding delegate allocation were intended to address two problems that developed during the 2012 campaign.

The first was the fact that that haphazard schedule of states that allocated delegates proportionally rather than winner-take-all meant that the race extended out further than it really ought to have. In reality, it was clear by mid to late March that Mitt Romney would eventually get the majority needed to win on the first ballot, but the fact that the schedule ahead included many states that were still awarding delegates proportionally meant that candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum still had the ability to continue to accrue delegates. Mitt Romney would get the majority in the states he won, of course, but the pace at which they accumulated was slow and the race dragged on longer than it should have. Moving the proportional states up in the calendar was, along with the idea of returning to the practice of having the convention in the mid-summer rather than around Labor Day, in part meant to bring the primary season to an earlier end so that the nominee could start spending funds allocated for the General Election much earlier than in the past.

The second issue that prompted the rule changes were the attempts by supporters of Ron Paul to use state convention systems in caucus states to essentially change the outcome of caucuses by flooding the state conventions that select delegates with supporters. While this wouldn’t necessarily enable them to change the outcome of the balloting for the nomination, it could give them an outsized influence in other matters, such as the platform and other procedural rules. In response, the RNC adopted rules that make it harder for delegates that are pledged to a candidate based on the result of a primary or caucus to change their vote to another candidate. The intention here, obviously, is to make it harder for an insurgent candidate and his or her supporters to hijack the process. Instead, what these changes are likely to do is make it next to impossible for those Republicans who may harbor fantasies of somehow beating Trump on the floor even if he does have a majority of pledged delegates on the first ballot.

In other words, rule changes intended to address 2012’s version of the insurgent candidate are likely to help 2016’s insurgent candidate. There’s no way the RNC could have anticipated this, of course, but it is somewhat ironic.


FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. DrDaveT says:

    As one of my physicist friends once remarked, “Leadership is a scalar, not a vector.”

    If you reward momentum, without regard to what direction the momentum is taking you, you’re gonna regret it sooner or later. Looks like the smart money is on “sooner”.

  2. MBunge says:

    Of course, we’ve seen the same thing on the Democratic side but less out of overt process-rigging and more because of a groupthink that no one should get in the way of Hillary Clinton. Even when the GOP establishment was completely in the tank for George W. Bush in 2000, you had multiple significant figures who at least made an effort to contest his coronation.


  3. marke says:

    well they could always just stack the deck against ANY non-establishment candidate like the Clinton machine did with the anti-democratic super-delegate nonsense.

  4. Rafer Janders says:

    In other words, rule changes intended to address 2012’s version of the insurgent candidate are likely to help 2016’s insurgent candidate.

    Can’t. Stop. Laughing.

  5. Kylopod says:


    well they could always just stack the deck against ANY non-establishment candidate like the Clinton machine did with the anti-democratic super-delegate nonsense.

    The superdelegates were started in the 1980s, long before either of the Clintons had any prominence or influence in national politics.

  6. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Enough with the whining about superdelegates. They been a fact of Democratic conventions for 32 years now. Sanders knew the rules going in, and nobody made him decide to run as a Democrat when he isn’t even one to begin with.

    Beyond that, this is a political party selecting its preferred nominee. It is not, nor has it ever been intended to be, democratic.

  7. Tony W says:

    @Kylopod: Which does not change the anti-democratic nature of the superdelegate concept at all. It is specifically designed to thwart the will of the people when the people are ‘wrong’ .

  8. Grumpy Realist says:

    @Rafer Janders: political karma, baby.

  9. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Tony W:

    Opening the primaries up to widespread democratic influence over the process gave us McGovern and the most lopsided loss in presidential history.

    Nothing more really needs to be said about that.

  10. Dave D says:

    @HarvardLaw92: I am sympathetic to arguments on both sides. The party should be able to exert control over it’s candidate, which would be a way to thwart someone like Trump from winning the nomination. And there is an argument to be made about the lack of down ballot party support ($) Bernie can supply since he isn’t a Democrat to begin with. At the same time it really take the steam out of people who have become disaffected with the Establishment. I’m just glad the primaries since SC are not very close. Because it could really hurt the party with some young disaffected voters if she could only take the nomination through the super delegates.

  11. bookdragon says:

    @Tony W: And OMG but the GOP must be wishing that they’d gone with super delegates instead of what they did after 2012.

    …and if, God forbid, Trump somehow becomes president, we will all be wishing the GOP had super delegates too.

  12. Gustopher says:

    I think decades of appealing to the worst in people probably helps more then the delegate allocation rules.

  13. PJ says:

    Been pointing out the thresholds before, and currently, obviously with not a lot of votes counted, Rubio is close to or below the at-large thresholds in five states (Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Vermont). And with districts in may states only rewarding the winner and runner up, this looks like a really bad day for Rubio.
    He should be done after Florida.

  14. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Indeed! Truly, Karma is a beeyotch.

  15. Jenos Idanian says:

    They might have thought they were stacking the deck, but they were merely greasing the skids for whoever got an early lead. They just thought they could control who would get that early lead.

    They choose… poorly.

  16. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Dave D:

    It’s looking like she is going to post the same sort of blowout victories in GA, AL, AR, TN, TX and VA. Unless my calculations are incorrect or there is a massive & unprecedented shift in these states before the night is over, thanks to proportional allocation across the board, Sanders will come out of Super Tuesday having to post roughly 60-40 wins in every remaining state just to catch up with Clinton. He’ll have to post better than 60-40 wins in every remaining state in order to beat her.

    I sort of like the guy in a quirky old uncle sort of way, but mathematically IMO it’s just not going to happen for him. He’s too far behind and there are no states left (again, IMO) in which he’s likely to top 60% of the vote.

  17. HarvardLaw92 says:

    On a related note, it’s both fun and disconcerting at the same time to watch the monster that the GOP has created eat its creator alive. Perhaps this is the moment when they burn that particular village down in order to save it.

  18. PJ says:

    Rubio will fail to meet the at-large thresholds in Alabama, Texas, and Vermont, and Cruz will fail to meet the at-large threshold in Vermont.

    Rubio is in third place in most of the districts that have winner-take-most allocation of delegates, so he won’t get anything from these.
    On the other hand, the states that Rubio did well in, Virginia and Minnesota, both have proportional allocation for at-large and district delegates…

    Truly a bad, bad day for Rubio.

  19. Kylopod says:


    Opening the primaries up to widespread democratic influence over the process gave us McGovern and the most lopsided loss in presidential history.

    The thing is, though, if we ever get to the point that a candidate who’s the clear favorite of primary voters gets denied the nomination due to the superdelegates, it will probably be a disaster for the Democrats. This scenario has never happened so far (despite a common PUMA talking point about the 2008 election), but then since 1984 (when the superdelegates were first implemented), the Dems haven’t had any really off-the-wall candidates sweeping the primaries.

    I’m sure some GOP elites now are privately wishing they had superdelegates, but if they ever did use such a power to deny the nomination to a candidate like Trump or Cruz who was clearly winning the primaries, it would, again, be a disaster for the party. Whether it would be a worse disaster than simply letting them be nominated is debatable, of course, but there’s a good argument that if this is what GOP voters want, they should be allowed to face the consequences.

    The point is, even though there’s no rule in democracies that a party’s candidates must be chosen “democratically,” the fact is that the US’s two major parties have for the last four decades adopted a system that at least carries the pretense of being a democratic process, and because of that, any overt interference by elites tends to look very, very bad.

  20. grumpy realist says:

    @Kylopod: Yes, the question is now whether the head honchos of the Republican Party just jump along the Trump Train and go along for the ride, or try to pull something at the convention.

    My suspicion is that within a month or so they’ll all have found reasons to support Trump and will be pushing for his election as hard as anyone, because, y’know, Hillary.

  21. gVOR08 says:

    @grumpy realist: You could see Trump rehearsing his turn to the center in his acceptance speech, press conference, humiliation of Christie, whatever that was last night. In a month the GOPs and the supposedly liberal MSM will be amazed at how much Trump’s grown since the first debates. You are absolutely right. heads will spin over how quickly they line up to kiss his yuuuge … ring.

  22. gVOR08 says:

    Hillary’s speech last night was very good, as was Bernie’s. Trump’s was good from his perspective. I’d never actually listened to Cruz for more than a minute or two until last night. Struck me as a surprisingly poor public speaker.

  23. Scott says:

    @gVOR08: I listened to Trump’s speech and follow-on press conference. Pretty good, presentation-wise; content utter nonsense. Then I watched Cruz which made me want to support Trump. Truly awful.