Although we are only seven contests into the Republican nomination process, eyes are already focusing on the all-important delegate count. As most of you know, to win the Republican nomination, a candidate must accumulate 1,144 delegates. So where do the candidates stand? It’s understandable if you answer “I’m not sure.” Consider the delegate counts presented by four different sources: NPR, the Washington Post, CNN and RealClearPolitics. I’ve listed their online delegate counts in the following table:
Why the different totals? Aren’t they watching the same contests? In fact, they are. However, there are two major sources of discrepancies. One issue is whether to count the so-called un-pledged delegates. These are the 123 Republican Party members who are automatically selected as delegates, but who are not necessarily pledged to any particular candidate. Some of those delegates have endorsed a candidate already and, in these cases, some sources count the endorsements in their tally, but others do not. Should we count those endorsements? The Democratic race in 2008 may provide some guidance. You will recall that early in the race many party leaders backed Hillary Clinton. But when it became clear that Obama was ahead of Clinton in the delegate race, they switched their support to him. It’s not hard to believe that a similar process may take place in this election cycle. So, it’s quite likely that endorsements today may change down the road.
A bigger source of discrepancy, however, comes from decisions regarding how to appraise the caucus results. To date, of the seven Republican contests, four have been caucuses: Iowa, Nevada, Minnesota and Colorado. Not coincidentally, Rick Santorum has won three of the four. However, formally speaking, no delegates have been awarded in any of them. Instead, in all four states only the first of a three-step process has taken place; an initial slate of delegates has been selected at the precinct level, but they will in turn attend county-level meetings, which in turn will select representatives to the state-level convention. The actual delegates who will attend the Republican convention are chosen in that final state-level step.
Some sources, such as NPR, have decided not to award the “winners” of the caucus states any delegates. There are sound reasons for exercising such caution. Consider Nevada. In 2008, Mitt Romney won an overwhelming victory in the first stage of the Nevada caucus. However, before the second step – the county-level meetings – took place, Romney had dropped out of the race. When the precinct-level delegates attended the county meetings, Ron Paul supporters flooded the county-level meetings in an effort to win over Romney’s delegates. (In some cases, the Romney delegates didn’t show up). Party leaders who supported McCain, who by this time had clearly won the Republican nomination, were forced to reschedule the county-level meetings in an effort to prevent the Paulistas from claiming Nevada’s delegates.
It’s not hard to see how something similar might happen in this election cycle. If Santorum drops out before the county-level meetings take place in Iowa, Minnesota or Colorado, his precinct-level delegates may opt to back another candidate. Given this possibility, it’s understandable why NPR is not willing to give Santorum any delegates for his caucus victories. On the other hand, his “victories” in Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado, aren’t entirely meaningless; they position him to claim the bulk of these state delegates if he stays in the race and his precinct-level delegates remain committed through the county and state conventions.
So, which source is “right”? They all are – as long as you understand the criteria on which the delegate calculation is based. My preference is to take the conservative route and exclude the caucus results from delegate calculations. But there are valid reasons to include the caucus results in the delegate calculations.
No matter which route you take, however, there is a long way to go before the Republican nomination will be decided. And, as I’ll discuss in a future post – it’s not clear that the nominee will be decided before the Republican convention.