Why Ron Paul Really Can Win, or the Wild World of Primary Math

by pjamesbeardsley

After Super Tuesday, Mitt Romney has a commanding lead in the delegate count and has won 3 of the 5 states (Florida, Ohio, and Virginia; Pennsylvania and North Carolina still outstanding) most critical for Republican success against Barack Obama in November.  So why are the others still in it?  Why wouldn’t they give up?  The answer is simple: in the wild world of primary math, “winning” is an interesting word.  They can “lose” the primary and still get the nomination.

To truly win the primary before the convention, a candidate must achieve 1144 delegates in order to have a clear majority of the 2286 that will cast a vote at the Republican National Convention in August.  Get that number of bound delegates, and nothing can stop you.

If a candidate has a clear lead, but no majority, we get introduced to this nuance called “unbound” delegates.  These are 477 of the 2286 total delegates. The RNC allocates delegates to states based on a variety of factors, but it pretty much boils down to two: how big of a factor you are in the electoral college, and how likely you are to vote Republican.  The states (and territories) are then free to allocate these delegates however they darn well choose.  Some legally bind their delegates to the results of the primary / caucus / straw poll / state party convention.  Some do not.  Take Montana for instance: 26 delegates.  They are allocated based on the results of the caucus, but they aren’t legally bound.  A “Santorum delegate” from Montana can go to Tampa and vote for Romney.

Other unbound delegates are even softer.  The Republican Party of a given state / territory is free to reserve some (or all, but none do) of their delegates to members within the hierarchy of the party.  A governor who is a member of the party, the state party chairman, something of that sort.  These are “superdelegates,” but the Republican Party doesn’t want to call them that.  That’s what the Democrats do.

So if a candidate gets a clear plurality, but not 1144, those delegates can leave and go for somebody else in order to save the party a headache, help the guy they think can win the general, show some love to their bff, or whatever.  They are the mirror fog in making any semblance of clarity in this mess.

Where we stand right now – Mitt Romney is the clear leader.  He has won 302 of the just under 600 “bound” delegates allocated thus far.  He’s also gotten verbal pledges from 19 of the superdelegates, more than triple the other 3 candidates combined (which is why I just have to laugh when Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg say he’s not the “establishment” candidate).  That would lead you to believe he’s on pace for the nomination, and in that way it would mislead you.

Here’s why: there have been caucuses and primaries held so far where the delegates are strangely allocated, and not even really, officially, allocated.  Iowa and Washington are examples.  There is a raw “vote” taken, but it’s virtually meaningless in and of itself.  The caucuses held in conjunction with the vote send delegates to the state convention, where those delegates will actually select the delegates to go to the national convention.  It’s a strange process, and every state that does it has their own unique flavor of it, but it’s an approach specifically designed to sway the delegate allocation toward more motivated and organized campaigns.

The wonderful website www.thegreenpapers.com estimates the results of those caucuses based on the raw vote totals, but that’s misleading.  Historically mildly accurate, and reasonable enough for an estimation, but misleading.  The Paul campaign is much more motivated and well organized than the others.  Paul will get much more than his vote totals suggest.  If those numbers are taken to be accurate, however, Romney currently has 368 projected delegates + 19 superdelegates for 387 total delegates.  The other three candidates have a total of 350.  But like I said, in some of those states (Washington and Maine in particular) Paul will get more than his fair share, and steal directly from Romney.  That number is closer to even than the projections suggest.  And remember, 19 of those are superdelegates, which artificially inflate Romney’s pace.

Then we have the near future, which does not look good at all for Romney.  Between now and March 20, 161 bound delegates will be awarded and 46 unbound delegates will be up for grabs.  The vast majority are either in caucus states / territories or in open primaries in decidedly anti-Romney territory: the South and Plains, or the heavily practicing-Catholic Puerto Rico.  Mitt way win a couple of the Mormon-rich territories, but even then the delegates will be split, and he may very well finish 4th in the open primaries in Alabama and Mississippi.  If he gets 60 of those delegates, it would be a surprise.  While maybe, and I’ll emphasize probably not, on pace for 1144 now, he won’t be anywhere close to on pace for 1144 in the near future, and somebody (I suspect Santorum) will have the momentum.

Which is why Ron Paul can win this.  If nobody actually gets to 1144, everybody enters Tampa as an equal.  It’s like having 4 guys run a marathon to determine physical fitness, and if none finishes in a certain threshold, we all go to Tampa and play basketball.  Unless those unbound delegates mess with the timekeeping.  Or something like that.  More than that, Ron Paul polls better in a head to head against Barack Obama than any other candidate, and he’s actually growing the party.

We’ve got LeBron James.  The other Republican campaigns have marathon runners.  They’ll beat on us for now, but unless one of them gets to 1144, we’ll have the edge when it matters.