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Delegate Process Could Make Race A Long(er) Haul

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney shakes hands at a campaign rally at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio, on Wednesday.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney shakes hands at a campaign rally at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio, on Wednesday.

Mitt Romney's decisive victory in Arizona on Tuesday won him every one of that state's 29 delegates in what was a winner-take-all election. But it was quite a different story in Michigan.

Even though Rick Santorum finished 3 percentage points behind Romney, Santorum ended up with the same amount of delegates: 15. That's because Michigan awards most of its delegates according to congressional districts.

Every one of the 10 states voting next week on Super Tuesday will also award delegates on a proportional basis.

Picking Up Delegates

Back in the GOP presidential primary's olden times — that would be around mid-January of this year — Michigan Republican committeeman and Romney supporter Saul Anuzis made a bold prediction.

"I think that there's a very good chance that by the time Michigan and Arizona vote, either we will have a presumptive nominee or we will be the ones that deliver the presumptive nominee going into Super Tuesday," he said.

But while Romney did win those contests, not many people today are calling him the presumptive nominee.

Romney, himself, conceded Tuesday that this is no longer so much a contest about who's won the most states; instead it's about who piles up the most delegates for the GOP nominating convention in August in Tampa, Fla.

"What we're after is delegates, so make sure we cover all the congressional districts where we think we have the best shot at picking up delegates," Romney said Tuesday in Michigan. "This is a race to get the delegates I need to become our nominee."

And so far, this race has been about fewer than 15 percent of all the delegates at stake. That's just how Republican Party rule-makers wanted it to be when they changed the guidelines after the 2008 primary.

How We Got Here

John Ryder, a GOP committeeman from Tennessee, said his party's nominating process essentially ended when 21 states took part in Super Tuesday in early February of 2008, with the majority of them holding winner-take-all contests.

"It was a broadly held consensus ... that the process in '08 had concluded too soon and needed to be extended somewhat longer to give other candidates and other states a chance to be involved and participate in the process," he said.

So party officials put in place a new rule requiring most states voting before April to hold contests that awarded delegates proportionally rather than on a winner-take-all basis.

A couple of states — Florida and Arizona — chose to flout that rule; they held winner-take-all contests anyway.

They now run the risk of having their delegates re-allocated if there's no clear winner by the time of the GOP convention.

But elections expert Josh Putnam of Davidson College said there has not yet been a big impact from the rules changes.

"As far as what we've seen so far, there are no changes in any of the contests that've gone relative to the rules that they had in 2008. So even if we were using the 2008 rules now, the delegate allocation would look exactly the same," he said.

Sprinting To Super Tuesday

The big difference will likely be noted next Tuesday, when 10 states all award delegates on a proportional basis. That could easily help drag out the contest for weeks to come.

Ohio Republican Congressman Steve Chabot lamented the prospect of that at a recent town hall meeting.

"Our candidate could very well be bleeding and wounded, walking into the presidential primary when he's going to have a billion dollars that the Obama campaign is going to probably have raised, and their allies," Chabot said.

And Chabot's state of Ohio, with its 66 delegates and key swing-state status, will likely be the biggest battleground next Tuesday.

The University of Akron's David Cohen said polls have been showing Santorum edging out Romney in Ohio.

"If Santorum is able to win a large Midwest industrial state like Ohio, I think that sends a very big signal that he's going to be competitive going forward, which is why you know Romney, really, based on the results last night, really needs to blunt any momentum that Santorum can get," Cohen said Wednesday.

One thing working against Santorum in Ohio is his failure to have filed a slate of delegates in three of the state's congressional districts — a move that could alone cost him nine delegates.

But Davidson's Putnam said ultimately, it still matters who wins each state.

"As much as the rules matter, so too do the dynamics of any given race, and we've got a competitive race," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.