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Unlocking The Mysteries Of Delegate Selection

Republican congressional candidate and Maine Senate President Kevin Raye speaks during the Kennebec County Super Caucus in Augusta, Maine, on Feb. 4.
Joel Page
Republican congressional candidate and Maine Senate President Kevin Raye speaks during the Kennebec County Super Caucus in Augusta, Maine, on Feb. 4.

To win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, a candidate must secure 1,144 delegates, a simple majority of those available. But how delegates are chosen differs state by state.

On Thursday's Fresh Air, political scientist Josh Putnam, author of the blog Frontloading HQ, explains how delegates are chosen, why the process is different state by state, and how reforms instituted since the 1968 Democratic National Convention have changed the process of choosing a presidential candidate.

Some states in the U.S. — such as Iowa and Maine — have caucuses, while other states — like New Hampshire — have primaries. So what's the difference between the two?

"A primary functions pretty much like a general election does. You go in, you sign in with an election official, you cast your vote and you leave," explains Putnam. "A caucus is different from that. You go in — and certainly the presidential preference vote is part of the process — but we're talking in addition to that, a three- or four-hour meeting that deals with other party business: setting up the platform process for the subsequent state convention, and so on and so forth. So with a caucus, we're dealing with much more of a time commitment on the part of caucus-goers."

In the Maine precinct caucuses, held earlier this month, Mitt Romney received 39.2 percent of the votes. Ron Paul received 35.7 percent of the votes — less than a 200-vote difference. Maine has 24 delegates up for grabs. But the voting process in Maine is nonbinding — meaning no delegates were chosen based on the results of the straw poll vote. (Making it more complicated, several areas in Maine have not caucused yet and were not included in the straw poll tallies, which Putnam outlines in much greater detail on his blog.)

After casting votes for their preferred presidential candidates, caucus-goers in Maine have the option to leave before the delegate selection process begins. Under the caucus system, delegates selected in each area then move onto another round — which could be a county caucus or a district caucus or even the state convention. The number of steps differ by state. In Maine, the process moves on to a district/state convention — held simultaneously within the state convention.

If this sounds confusing, that's because it is. And Putnam says the process doesn't necessary reveal how many delegates will go to each candidate.

"It's naive of us to think that there's no transference of presidential preference through this process," he says. "But it's [also] naive of us to think — at least with the Republican presidential process in 2012 — [that we have] a firm grasp on how that's actually translating from one step to the next. ... The assumption going into this is that the number of delegates moving forward is going to be close to proportional to the number of votes in the straw poll vote. But there's nothing in most of these state party rules that requires that."

That's a loophole in the process, he says, that Paul's supporters are using strategically.

"They will stick around and be very regimented in making sure that their supporters gobble up as many of those delegate slots to the next round of this process [as they can]. And that very greatly increases their chances of pushing folks through to the national convention," he says. "The straw poll is only for show, essentially."

In election cycles when the nominee is settled on quickly, he says, a straw poll win becomes part of a candidate's momentum.

"And then once we finally get around to the state convention, we already know who the nominee is, and those delegates line up behind that nominee," he says. "At this point — in 2012 — we've got a situation where we don't have a clear front-runner, we don't have a clear front-runner with momentum, so we've got a competition for these delegates."

Josh Putnam is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Davidson College, specializing in campaigns and elections.
/ Courtesy of Josh Putnam
Courtesy of Josh Putnam
Josh Putnam is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Davidson College, specializing in campaigns and elections.

Interview Highlights

On what the Constitution says about delegate selection

"The Constitution doesn't really say much of anything. The Constitution doesn't even account for parties in there. This is a situation where the states have the authority — one of those enumerated powers that's left up to the states to decide."

On who decides what happens in the state primary process: the state or the party

"It's a combination of the two. Ultimately the state party has the final say on whether they're going to have a primary or caucus. But at the end of the day, there's also this incentive that state parties have to opt into a presidential primary, simply because the state funds it in most cases. Otherwise, they're footing the bill for a caucus."

On why Iowa likes going first

"State-level actors, whether they're within the government or state parties, want to ensure that their voters have a say in who the presidential nominee's going to be. There's this incentive — or has been, over the last generation — to move up earlier and earlier, to make sure you're ahead of the point in the process where one candidate's been able to mass 50 percent plus one of the delegates that's available."

On how votes count in different states

"It is fair to say that given the rules, votes count differently in different states — or at least voters have different incentives. It's easier to participate in a primary state than it is in a caucus state — the time commitment alone forces folks away from that process."

On how the 1968 Democratic National Convention changed the selection process

"The primaries at that point in time were just for show. They were a way for candidates to demonstrate that they had some strengths and viability in any given state or region. The ultimate decision for the nominee was not bound by anything that had happened in those primaries and caucuses at that time. They merely served as advisory. In '68, that advice was essentially ignored because [the eventual Democratic presidential nominee] Hubert Humphrey had not participated in any of the primaries. ... The intent of the McGovern-Fraser Commission reforms — the reforms that changed this presidential nomination process — was to bring in more rank-and-file opinions within the party to this process and not make it look as if it was just a decision from the elites within the party. The intent was to make the process more democratic. ... It made the primaries and caucuses binding — that the decisions made in those [contests] would affect the delegates that were chosen to go to the convention, and thereby [affect] who the ultimate nominee was going to be."

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