A window on the undemocratic, not-so-egalitarian world of GOP delegate allocation

How does the Republican Party decide how many delegates each state will a have in the presidential nomination process? There's a method. But it doesn't give all primary voters an equal say – a fact that's drawing scrutiny in the wild 2016 race. 

Mike Groll/AP/FILE
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Rome, N.Y., on April 12.

Donald Trump argues that the Republican delegate allocation process is undemocratic. Or, to use his exact phrase in regards to Colorado’s delegate selection last weekend, “rigged, disgusting, and dirty.”

Well, “disgusting” and “dirty” are in the eye of the beholder. And “rigged” is such a prejudicial word. But undemocratic? Yes. And it’s not just the GOP. Both major party delegate systems are indeed undemocratic in the strictest sense. They’re designed to be.

That’s because the Republican and Democratic parties are private groups that can pick their presidential nominees however they want. The Constitutional framework that governs general elections need not apply. They can use state primaries, a show of hands, or reality-show ratings. There doesn’t have to be voting. There didn’t used to be – lots of prior nominees got their spot on the ticket via backroom deals.

To see how the delegate allocation process isn’t exactly a civics textbook, consider this: On the GOP side, red states and the voters who live in them get relatively more say in the outcome than do blue state Republicans. “One person, one vote”? The Constitutionally-derived principle that US political representation has to be divvied up evenly amongst the population? Sorry – that’s for general elections only.

Here’s how this works. For the purposes of determining who wins the 1,237 delegates necessary to be named GOP standard-bearer, each US state gets an automatic 10 at-large delegates, plus three for each congressional district in the state. Then, it’s bonus time, under Republican National Committee rules.

The state gets one extra delegate for having a Republican US senator. If it has two, it gets two extra delegates. If it has a Republican governor, it gets an extra delegate. If at least half its congressional delegation is GOP, it gets an extra delegate. It gets an extra delegate for each state legislative chamber that’s dominated by – surprise – Republicans.

And if the state voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, it hits the bonus jackpot. It gets 4.5 extra delegates, plus delegates equaling the Electoral College votes it provided Mitt, multiplied by 0.60. Rounded up, in case it doesn’t come out evenly.

Got that? You can look at the equation here at the invaluable Green Papers electoral website, if necessary.

What’s the effect of this in the real world? Well, both Massachusetts and Tennessee have nine congressional districts. That means their populations are equivalent. But Massachusetts, a generally blue state, is sending 42 delegates to the GOP convention. Tennessee, a red state, gets 58.

Right now this skewed allocation is indeed promising to harm Donald Trump. That’s because New York, the next stop in the primary train and a place where Trump is poised to win big, is a blue state. It’s got 95 delegates, which seems like a lot, but isn’t, comparatively speaking. Nebraska, Idaho, and Wyoming combined have 97.

New York’s population is 20 million. Of course, a lot of them are Democrats. Nebraska, Idaho, and Wyoming combined have a little over 4 million people. But they’re all reliably Republican states.

The Democrats have their own finger-on-the-scale methods of increasing the relative power of their states. The most famous of these are the unpledged superdelegates, party poobahs who get an automatic ticket to the Democratic National Convention.

It’s easy to see why the parties favor these methods. They increase the chances of picking a nominee that is representative of the party at large and can unify partisans. Theoretically. The GOP’s bonus allocations give state party figures incentives to do all they can to elect Republicans at all levels, from the statehouse to the US Senate.

And Republicans who live in blue states shouldn’t feel so bad. After all, every congressional district in America gets at least one delegate to the GOP convention, even if it has a Democratic representative in the House. Given the tendency of Democrats to cluster in urban areas, this means the primary votes of blue state Republicans actually matter more than those of their red state counterparts on an individual basis. The average blue congressional district awards one convention delegate for every 29,000 Mitt Romney voters, according to FiveThirtyEight data. The average red district awards one delegate for every 57,000 Romney voters.

Is all this complicated, perhaps to the point of diminishing returns? Yes. Is it democratic, in the sense of every Republican voter having an exactly equal say in whether Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or the ghost of William McKinley represents the party in November? No.

The delegate selection process has been this bonkers for decades, of course. It’s not as if the RNC changed its system to disadvantage anyone on purpose. But at this point every single delegate matters, so every aspect of the nomination system is under scrutiny like never before.

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