The Delegate Race: Can Newt Win The Bonus Round?

As the media fixates on the Romney-Santorum duel that will come to a head in Michigan and Arizona next Tuesday, it’s worth remembering another reason why Mitt’s slog to the nomination may prove more difficult than many thought, and why we shouldn’t yet count Newt Gingrich out: the bonus delegates. These are delegates awarded to states based on whether they meet one or more of the following requirements: the state cast a majority of its votes for the Republican presidential candidate in the previous presidential election, the state elected Republicans to the U.S. House or Senate, it selected a Republican Governor, or the state elected a Republican legislative majority. The formula (see the Green Papers website) for determining how many bonus delegates a state gets varies from the simple – 1 bonus delegate if the state elected a Republican governor between Jan. 1, 2008 and December 31, 2011 – to the more complex – states casting a majority of their 2008 electoral votes for the Republican presidential candidate receive 4.5 + 0.60 × the jurisdiction’s total 2012 electoral vote in bonus delegates.

But the basic point is that the more Republican a state’s voting tendencies are, the more bonus delegates it earns.  This is potentially important, because it means that some Republican-leaning states will award more delegates than larger but more Democratic states by virtue of earning these bonus delegates.  On Super Tuesday March 6, for example, the biggest delegate prize is Georgia, which awards 77 delegates, 11 more than the more populated Ohio, which hands out 66 delegates.  The reason why Georgia awards more than Ohio, even though Ohio is the larger state, is because Georgia is allocated 21 bonus delegates compared to Ohio’s five.  The difference, of course, reflects Ohio’s status as a competitive battleground state, whereas Georgia is solidly Republican.

Because these bonus delegates are awarded statewide, rather than by congressional district, a candidate who does well across that state can get a significant delegate boost. All told, there are 396 bonus delegates at stake in the Republican nomination process (not adjusting for the 50% penalties imposed in five states that held nominating contests too early).  Significantly, however, 164 of these delegates, or about 41% of the total, are clustered in the following nine southern states, (listed in descending order by total bonus delegates): Texas (34), Georgia (21), Tennessee (18), Alabama (16), South Carolina (16 originally, but note that the state was penalized half its total delegates), Louisiana (15), Mississippi (15), Oklahoma (15) and Kentucky (14).  These are all states in which, in theory, either Newt Gingrich or possibly Rick Santorum should be very competitive (Gingrich’s already won South Carolina, of course.)   Looking ahead only to the Super Tuesday contests on March 6, Gingrich has a solid 5-8% polling lead over Santorum in Georgia, the biggest delegate prize that day. Conceivably Gingrich could come out of there with 30-35 delegates, including a plurality of the state’s bonus delegates.

However, if Santorum does show that he can win a large primary state by, for example, beating Mitt in either Arizona or Michigan, he rather than Newt may be the primary beneficiary of these bonus delegate rules on March 6. Looking only at the Super Tuesday states, Santorum currently leads Newt in both Tennessee and Oklahoma, although neither state has been polled extensively at this stage and I suspect Santorum’s support is soft in both places. Gingrich does not look to do as well as Santorum in Ohio, and neither he nor Santorum is on the ballot in Virginia. Romney, of course, should win Vermont and Massachusetts quite easily on Super Tuesday.  If Gingrich does well enough on Super Tuesday to convince the media he remains a viable candidate, however, that may boost his stock somewhat in the remaining southern states  – Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas, that have a combined 55 bonus delegates.

In contrast, many states in the Northeast and on the West Coast where Romney is likely to run the strongest have almost no bonus delegates, since these are mostly Democratic strongholds.  Thus, California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – all large states where Mitt and possibly Rick should do well – award a grand total of 9 bonus delegates. The lack of bonus delegates won’t matter, of course, if Mitt is able to parley his advantages in money and organization into sizable victories in these states and if he amasses such a delegate lead that his nomination appears all but inevitable. However, if he continues to stumble, and the delegate race tightens considerably, these bonus delegates may yet prove to be his undoing.

UPDATE 8:53.  Just saw this poll in the field Feb. 16-22 that has Santorum leading in Tennessee with 33% over Romney at 17%, with Gingrich trailing badly at 10%.  If this holds, it is not going to help Gingrich’s “southern strategy”.

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