I’ve written a couple of times before about how delegate math in the Republican presidential nominating process makes it harder for a right wing candidate to win the nomination than a candidate who is perceived as moderate. For example, on Super Tuesday in 2008, John McCain locked up the nomination. Much of that was due to victories in New York and California, which awarded him 250 delegates. Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee’s total haul from five victories that day was about 150 delegates. The lesson was that, as a Republican, ignoring New York, California, and other states that reliably vote Democratic in the general election can be sound strategy in the fall, but ignoring these states in the primaries will cost a candidate the nomination. But, this theory largely relies on scheduling. What would happen if the GOP primaries in Democratic-leaning states were pushed to later in the schedule? Next year, we will all find out.
That’s because through March 2016, much more delegates will be apportioned from states that Mitt Romney carried in the 2012 general election than did President Obama. By my count, about 720 delegates from Romney states will be apportioned versus about 460 from Obama states. That’s completely flipped from the 2008 schedule when, through Super Tuesday in February, about 720 delegates from Democratic-leaning states were apportioned versus 520 from Republican-leaning states.
This scheduling matters. A whole lot of people live in the coastal states and the upper Midwest. The GOP’s arch-conservative stances find much less of a welcome reception in these states than they do in the south and in the plains. By scheduling these primaries at later dates, this nominating contest should be more conservative than in 2008 and 2012. For the first time in these past few presidential election cycles, right wing positions and policies might not be as much of a hindrance to capturing the nomination. After March 2016, Democratic-leaning states start going to the polls, and the balance of delegates begins to even out. But, momentum is a powerful thing in politics. A conservative candidate could have so many delegates locked up by then that they will be able to hold off any resurgent challenge from a more moderate candidate in April, if there are any left by then.
This may explain the thinking among the crowded field of GOP candidates. As Frank Bruni pointed out in the New York Times, only one GOP candidate, Jeb Bush, has come out against the poisonous rhetoric of Donald Trump, and he waited for two weeks after Trump opened his mouth to make his displeasure known. In 2008 and 2012, a GOP candidate would have done well to distance himself from a candidate like Trump, as this would surely have helped capture the big delegate counts in the Democratic-leaning states. But now that’s less of a concern. By the time New York and California vote, the nominating contest could be over. The candidates today may be thinking, wisely, that alienating the moderates is a surer path to nomination, rather than alienating the base.
What does that mean for the general election? Well, it means that there is less chance of the GOP nominating a milquetoast candidate like McCain or Romney. There could very well be a fire-breathing right wing GOP candidate, someone who wants to repeal Obamacare, slash entitlements, and slash taxes below sustainable levels. I’m thinking of a candidate who wants to do to the entire United States what Sam Brownback has done to Kansas since he was elected governor. That would be a total disaster. But it’s not all bad news. On the national stage, right wing policies are anathema to most voters. So, while the path to the nomination should be easier for a conservative candidate, actual victory in the fall might be harder.