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The Republican Presidential Primary Timeline

Before the 2016 presidential election cycle fully enters what might be called delegate selection plan season — when state parties finalize their plans for allocating delegates to the national conventions next year — it is important to take a step back and examine the rules changes made at the national party level. Those sets of national party delegate selection rules will guide how state parties shape the methods by which they will allocate delegates to the candidates vying for the two major-party nominations in 2016. And while those state-level plans do not often determine the outcome of a presidential nomination race, the various allocation methods can affect the course the race takes in getting to that point.

Differences across parties

Much has already been made about how the rule changes at the national party level will affect the 2016 nomination process. On delegate allocation, the Democratic National Committee extended to 2016 the requirements it has used dating back to the 1980s. State parties are mandated to proportionally allocate national convention delegates to candidates who receive 15% or more of the vote in a primary or caucus. That history in combination with a nomination contest that does not look much like a contest means that there will not be that much scrutiny of or likely consequence in how state Democratic parties opt to behave within the parameters laid out by the DNC.

That is not the case on the Republican side. Whereas the DNC has had in place a standard operating procedure relative to delegate allocation, the Republican National Committee has tinkered with its rules over the last couple of cycles. However, for much of the post-reform era, while the Democrats were defined by a proportionality mandate covering all states, the RNC took a more laissez faire approach, allowing states to determine their own method of allocating delegates to the national convention through their presidential primaries and caucuses. That led to a variety of intricate allocation methods that went beyond a true proportional system to include not only winner-take-all plans but also a host of hybrid allocation styles in between.

A look back at the changes for 2012

After 2008, the Republican National Committee broke with that tradition. Seeing the potential for benefits in a long, drawn-out nomination contest such as the one Democrats had in 2008, the RNC focused on the GOP’s open approach to delegate allocation in the lead up to 2012. Assuming equivalently competitive nomination races in both the Democratic and Republican parties, a system with some winner-take-all and hybrid methods of delegate allocation would theoretically reach a conclusion quicker than a system that requires all states to allocate their delegates proportionally. Rather than adopt the Democratic approach, the RNC in 2010 opted to create a window at the beginning of the presidential primary calendar in which states were required to proportionally allocate delegates. At the conclusion of that period on the calendar, the RNC would allow state parties to devise their own methods of allocation, as had previously been the case for all states.

The intent of the change was obvious. The RNC wanted a set of rules that would produce a slightly slower and more deliberative nomination process that would generate enthusiasm among Republican primary voters, sling-shotting the party into the general election phase of the campaign.

That was the intent, but at least two factors altered the grand vision the RNC had for the 2012 process. First, the definition of proportionality was very broad and provided a number of avenues back into more winner-take-all methods (if state parties chose to exercise them). To achieve what the RNC defined as proportional, the lowest bar to clear was allocating a state’s statewide, at-large delegates proportionally. That is a group of delegates that differs in number and significance across states. Relative to smaller population states, bigger states’ at-large delegates comprise a smaller share of the total number of delegates apportioned them by the RNC. What that means is that larger states could reach the proportionality threshold by proportionally allocating that small share of at-large delegates based on the statewide outcome while the remaining congressional district delegates — three per each congressional district — could be allocated in a winner-take-all manner based on the results within that congressional district. All told, state parties, in most cases, did not have to change much from their 2008 delegate selection plans to meet the new requirements from the national party for 2012.

The bar for meeting the proportionality requirement was low, and there were also few barriers to prevent states from bending the rules if they wanted to. This was especially true for states like Arizona and Florida. Both states chose to hold primaries earlier than was allowed by RNC rules, but both also chose to stick with truly winner-take-all allocation methods. That broke two rules, but the RNC only had one 50% delegate reduction penalty at their disposal to deter such behavior. Arizona and Florida highlighted this loophole in the penalty regime the RNC had constructed for 2012.

In practice, the full set of RNC rules seemed to have created a much slower process in 2012 than had been the case in 2008 or many of the preceding cycles. Looks can be deceiving, however. The slower process in 2012 was less about the new proportionality requirement than it was about states like Florida and Arizona pushing the earliest states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — into January and elongating the calendar on the front end. Couple that with the fact that delegate-rich states like California and Texas moved to the very end of the calendar and the result is a process that will more slowly officially nominate a candidate, regardless of the addition of the proportionality requirement. It was not until May 22, 2012, that 75% of the delegates had been allocated. A week later, following the Texas primary, Mitt Romney surpassed the 1,144 delegates required to clinch the 2012 Republican nomination.

A look ahead to 2016

As was the case after 2008, the Republican loss in the 2012 general election once again sent the Republican National Committee back to the drawing board. And again, the RNC examined its rules regarding delegate allocation. What the party responded with, as finalized in August 2014, was a new set of contradictory changes. On one hand, the national party passed a rule shrinking the proportionality window from all of March to just the first two weeks of March. In 2016, states with primaries or caucuses before March 15 will have to proportionally allocate their national convention delegates. Therefore, there is a smaller proportionality window in 2016 than there was in 2012, but the RNC layered into this change a more stringent definition of proportionality. The new definition eliminates some of the backdoor avenues to winner-take-all methods — or, more accurately, license to change very little from a state party’s previous plan — that the 2012 rules allowed.

In practice, those two factors — a smaller proportionality window but a more demanding definition of proportionality — may cancel each other out. Much will depend on how many states actually crowd into that two-week window, but that may say more about the rules facilitating a more compressed calendar than it does about the proportionality rules changes. There will be a lot of talk about how chaotic the Republican nomination process will be in 2016 and much of that will be attributed to rules changes — particularly the proportionality changes — but history, if not a completely proportional process akin to the Democratic one, suggests that the process will come to a conclusion sooner rather than later.

To highlight that, put the proportionality rules changes to the side for a moment and consider the 50-75 Rule. To game out the 2016 Republican nomination process under this rule, one needs two pieces of information: 1) at what point on the calendar have 50% of the delegates been allocated? and 2) at what point on the calendar have 75% of the total number of Republican delegates been allocated? The first gives some indication about who has established a lead in the delegate count and when, and the second roughly determines who has or will clinch the nomination and when. In 2008, the 50% threshold was hit on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5. John McCain established a formidable lead in the delegate count after that series of contests and clinched one month later on March 4 when the 75% mark was surpassed. In 2012, this process happened later. The process did not reach that 50% point until the Louisiana primary on March 24. Romney had a solid advantage in the delegate count at that point, but did not wrap up the nomination until a week after the 75% barrier had been crossed on May 22 when the Arkansas and Kentucky primaries were conducted.

Table 1: 50% and 75% GOP delegate allocation dates, 2008-2016

Note: *2016 dates are based on current expectations for the 2016 presidential primary calendar, which has not been finalized yet.

This serves as a rough proxy of the rhythms that recent Republican presidential nomination races have followed. The calendar is not yet set for 2016, but extending the 50-75 rule to the likely calendar next year, the 50% threshold is likely to be crossed on March 8 — the last Tuesday in the proportionality window — and the April 26 round of mid-Atlantic and northeastern primaries will push the delegates allocated total past 75%. That places those March 15 contests and any that come after that point (but before April 26) in prime position — especially if those states move to adopt truly winner-take-all or winner-take-most allocation plans — to put the presumptive nominee over the 1,235 delegates necessary to clinch the 2016 Republican nomination. Whether by accident or by design, that winner-take-all valve looks to be turned wide open right in the heart of that 50-75 window.

Josh Putnam is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Appalachian State University specializing in campaigns and elections. He is the author of Frontloading HQ, a blog about the presidential primary process.