Given the focus on opinion polls—a topic which I am thoroughly immersed—it is nevertheless important that we remember that the major party presidential nominees are neither chosen by polling results, nor by plurality elections in the 50 states. Rather, the nominees will be chosen in July by party delegates gathered in the respective conventions—in Cleveland for the Republicans and in Philadelphia for the Democrats. The primaries, caucuses, and in a few cases conventions, will determine which delegates go to the conventions.
Now to correct myself, the 39 primaries, 14 caucuses, and 3 conventions will select 93 percent of the Republican delegates and 85 percent of the Democratic candidates. In each state and territory, the top three Republicans will automatically go to Cleveland regardless of the state votes. On the Democratic side, 713 party leaders and elected officials (PLEOs), or 15 percent of the 4,764 Democratic Party delegates, will go to Philadelphia regardless of anyone’s vote; these are called the Super Delegates, and they are unbound by any popular will and free to vote their conscience.
The rules for allocating the number of delegates to the various states and territories are made by the national parties. The rules for selecting those delegates are made by the state parties. There is no single entity determining how the process works.
In both parties, the nominee needs to obtain a majority of the delegate votes at the convention. If no candidate, after the first round of voting, receives a majority of the vote, the delegates continue to vote until a point where someone—and it need not be from among the candidates in the primaries or caucuses—receives a majority of delegate votes. (It is the dream of every political scientist to witness a brokered convention, where the selection of the nominee plays out on live television through bargaining on the floor of the convention.)
Before March 1st, which is being called Super Tuesday or SEC Tuesday to reflect the large number of delegates at stake and the large number coming from southern state, only 133 of the 2,472 GOP delegates (5 percent) are in play. I do not mean to deny the importance of these primaries and caucuses, but if a candidate were to sweep these contests, they would still be a very long way off from securing the nomination.
As a rule, early states allocate delegates by various versions of proportional representation, although South Carolina a winner-take-all statewide and at the district level. After the big Super Tuesday contests, only 822 (or one third of the votes) will be selected in the Republican nomination process. Consequently, even is one GOP candidate rises far above the pack, they will still have to amass another 415 delegates in order to have the barest of majorities and a thin claim on the nomination (thin only in that they would need to hang on to each and every delegate).
By March 15, a majority of GOP delegates will have been selected, although the large GOP field will make it very unlikely that any candidate would have secured a majority by this point. It is likely that no Republican candidate will have the majority until at least April, and it is very possible that we won’t know the Republican nominee for sure until the June 7th, winner-take-all California primary. It is also possible that no GOP candidate has a majority of the pledged delegates going into the Cleveland Convention July 18, 2016—a political scientist can dream.
I will say more on the Democratic race in another blog piece.