The presidential nominating process is the most intricate and arcane part of our political system, perhaps because it’s the only bit not addressed in the Constitution.
The two major parties have held national conventions to choose presidential and vice presidential nominees for more than 150 years, Democrats starting in 1832 and Republicans in 1856.
But most delegates to those conventions have been chosen in primary elections only since 1972. This year’s Republican contest will be just the seventh open-seat contest since then with no incumbent president running, and so old rules of thumb may not apply. The Republican National Committee has also scheduled the first contests later, in February, and the national convention earlier, in July, and decided that delegates should be awarded proportionally to candidates’ votes in contests held before March 15.
There will be 2,472 delegates to the convention, including 168 Republican National Committee members from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and five territories (American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands), so a candidate needs 1,237 delegates to win the nomination. What follows is an analysis of the contests in chronological order, from Feb. 1 to June 7, indicating each state’s number of delegates, whether they are elected winner-take-all or proportionally, and showing the initial threshold percentage needed to win delegates.
Some states’ thresholds are reduced if no candidate receives the required percentage, and some states award delegates winner-take-all to a candidate who receives a majority or supermajority.
Iowa caucuses: 30 delegates, proportional statewide, no threshold
Iowa has held the first-in-the-nation contest since 1976, but only two non-incumbent Republicans who won Iowa went on to become the party’s nominee, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. Caucuses are held at many sites in each of 99 counties in the early evening, with no absentee voting. January polling shows a two-way race between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, with Trump perhaps on the rise. But Iowans sometimes decide late and break to a candidate lagging in polls.
The caucus procedure tends to favor well-organized campaigns that persuade supporters to participate. Many people dislike attending a meeting and declaring their choice in front of neighbors; it’s easier when they know others will be joining them. People who are part of social networks are more likely to attend caucuses, and for Iowa Republicans that often means church networks. More than half of caucus-goers in recent years have been evangelical Protestants, a higher percentage than in any other Republican contest outside the South.
One key factor may be turnout. In 2008 and 2012, Republican turnout was about 120,000, half the 2008 Democratic turnout and far below the 700,000 votes Republicans won in the last three presidential elections. Increased interest in this year’s GOP race, apparent in high debate viewership, and Trump’s appeal to previous non-caucus-goers suggest turnout could be higher this year.
Iowa caucuses have boosted not only winners and close runners-ups, but also candidates who beat expectations. In 1984, for example, Democrat Walter Mondale won with 50 percent, but Gary Hart’s second-place 16 percent finish gave him a bump that helped him win the New Hampshire primary a week later. January Iowa polling shows Marco Rubio in third place, far behind Trump and Cruz, but ahead of other candidates who poll in single digits. A solid third place could help Rubio in New Hampshire, or help another candidate who beats expectations and finishes third. Candidates running in single digits may be eliminated, unless they have significant support in New Hampshire or in later states. A weak showing for Ben Carson in a state with many religious conservatives could end his candidacy.
New Hampshire primary: 23 delegates, proportional statewide, 10 percent threshold
New Hampshire’s presidential primary has played an important part in Republican nomination contests since 1952. Winners there have included Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, all of whom went on to win the presidency. For many years, opposition to tax increases was key in this state, which has never imposed a state income or sales tax.
More recently, as politics has increasingly divided voters on cultural and religious lines, New Hampshire’s Republican electorate has been a counterpoint to Iowa’s, as in relatively secular rather than religiously conservative. New Hampshire polling has shown significant leads for Trump and a tight race for second place, with five candidates seemingly in contention.
John Kasich has placed all his hopes on New Hampshire. He has the same campaign manager Jon Huntsman did in 2012, and clearly hopes that he can equal Huntsman’s 17 percent there, possibly enough for second place in this crowded field. Chris Christie is also betting on New Hampshire, holding dozens of town meetings there. The risk for both men is that weak single-digit showings in Iowa may bump them downward here.
South Carolina primary: 50 delegates, winner-take-most/winner-take-all by congressional district
When Democrats eager to nominate a centrist candidate engineered a set of Southern contests in the 1988 cycle, Lee Atwater, George W. Bush’s campaign manager and a South Carolina native, engineered a primary in South Carolina the Saturday before those Super Tuesday contests. He believed he could produce a Bush victory there that would be replicated in other Southern states. And so it happened: Super Tuesday’s Democratic creators did indeed produce the nomination of a moderate Southern candidate, but in the other party.
Atwater died in 1989, but his political allies succeeded in carrying South Carolina for their candidates in every primary from 1992-2008, essentially clinching the nominations of George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush and John McCain. Many expected South Carolina to do that again in 2012, but Republicans there, sparked by Newt Gingrich’s attacks on the press, gave a solid margin to the former speaker, who was able to replicate that victory in his longtime home state of Georgia.
South Carolina Republicans have been split between religious conservatives in the Upcountry around Greenville and Spartanburg and economic conservatives in the Low Country around Charleston and the coast. The Atwater network is no longer operative and there don’t seem to be any kingmakers left.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former candidate himself but unpopular with some state Republicans because of his liberality on immigration, has endorsed Jeb Bush. Two of the state’s six Republican congressmen have endorsed Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul. Sen. Tim Scott might be a persuasive endorser. Gov. Nikki Haley, in her State of the Union response, criticized Trump, but he continued to hold a wide lead in two mid-January polls, with Cruz second and Rubio, Bush and Carson in a rough tie for third.
The field will presumably be narrowed by Iowa and New Hampshire, and there may be significant movement in the 11 days between New Hampshire and South Carolina, as there was in 2000, when George W. Bush rallied to beat McCain, and clinch the nomination, here.
Nevada caucuses: 30 delegates, proportional statewide, no threshold
Nevada was added to the short list of early contests for 2008 by Democratic Sen. Harry Reid without much thought about what it would mean on the Republican side. In the 2008 Democratic caucus, Hillary Clinton got more votes but fewer delegates than Barack Obama, a harbinger of the adroit gaming of delegate selection rules by the Obama campaign. Mitt Romney won big victories in the 2008 and 2012 Republican caucuses, in which about half the voters in the lightly attended caucuses were fellow Mormons, as is Reid. Turnout was relatively light, 43,000 in 2008 and 33,000 in 2012, in a state with a 2010 population of 2.7 million.
Past performance is thus not a helpful guide to future results in Nevada. This was the nation’s fastest growing state in percentage terms in the 1990s and up through the housing crash of 2007, so the Nevada electorate is packed with relative newcomers, with roots elsewhere. The Republican electorate has relatively low percentages of religious conservatives and college graduates, two groups that voted quite differently in the party’s past two nomination contests. There have been no public polls in 2016; Trump led in three polls between July and December 2015 by margins similar to national polls.
The key to Nevada is caucus turnout. Some 70 percent of voters, and a slightly smaller percentage of voters, live in Clark County (metro Las Vegas). Organization and turnout will be critical.
Alabama primary: 50 delegates, proportional statewide and by congressional district, 20 percent threshold
Alaska caucuses: 28 delegates, proportional statewide, 13 percent threshold
Arkansas primary: 40 delegates, proportional statewide with 15 percent threshold and by congressional district with no threshold
Georgia primary: 76 delegates, proportional statewide with 20 percent threshold and by congressional district with no threshold
Massachusetts primary: 42 delegates, proportional statewide, 5 percent threshold
Minnesota convention: 38 delegates, proportional statewide and by congressional district, 10 percent threshold
Oklahoma primary: 43 delegates, proportional statewide and by congressional district, 15 percent threshold
Tennessee primary: 58 delegates, proportional statewide and by congressional district, 20 percent threshold
Texas primary: 155 delegates, proportional statewide and by congressional district, 20 percent threshold
Vermont primary: 16 delegates, proportional statewide, 20 percent threshold
Virginia primary: 49 delegates, proportional statewide, no threshold
Wyoming convention: 29 delegates, no presidential preference vote
This is Super Tuesday, the set of mostly Southern primaries first put together in 1988 by Democrats who hoped for the nomination of a centrist Southern candidate. Those hopes were fulfilled, but in the Republican party, by the nomination of Texas’ George H.W. Bush. The list of states voting on Super Tuesday has changed somewhat every four years, but in this cycle more Republican delegates will be chosen on this date — 624, slightly more than half those needed for the nomination — than on any other day. States voting include the state with the second and fifth largest delegations, Texas and Georgia respectively.
They are almost certain not to vote as a bloc for one candidate because under RNC rules all delegates will be allocated proportionally rather than winner-take-all. The exception is Wyoming, the nation’s least populated state.
Note that the proportionality rules in most states are adjustable if no candidate reaches the threshold and/or one candidate receives a majority or supermajority of the votes. The proportionality rules give candidates an incentive to target not just states but also congressional districts carefully, to maximize their delegate totals or minimize those of opponents.
Three-quarters of Super Tuesday delegates will be chosen in primaries in the South, where religious conservatives make up majorities or near-majorities of Republican primary voters. However, the proportional nature of the primaries tends to penalize candidates with a special appeal to such voters or to Southern voters generally, because it will be difficult for them to achieve large pluralities of delegates. Another 58 delegates will be chosen in New England primaries and 95 in caucuses and conventions outside the South.
As the results come in on Super Tuesday evening, delegate counts will start to be important. The early contests will likely winnow the field, but they elect only 133 delegates, far fewer than the 624 decided on Super Tuesday.
Kansas caucuses: 40 delegates, proportional statewide and by congressional district, 10 percent threshold
Kentucky caucuses: 46 delegates, proportional statewide, 5 percent threshold
Louisiana primary: 46 delegates, proportional statewide and by congressional district, 20 percent threshold
Maine caucuses: 23 delegates, proportional statewide, 10 percent threshold
Four states that appear in consecutive order on the alphabetic list of states vote four days after Super Tuesday, Louisiana in a primary and the other three in caucuses. All will be divided proportionally, however, making it difficult for any candidate to amass a major delegate lead. Kentucky formerly had a primary, but switched to a caucus so Paul could run for president and be renominated for the Senate, but it seems unlikely he will remain a serious candidate in early March.
Puerto Rico primary: 23 delegates, proportional, 20 percent threshold
Puerto Rico has a larger delegation than four states. If one candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, he wins all 23 delegates.
Hawaii caucuses: 19 delegates, proportional statewide and by congressional district, no threshold
Idaho primary: 32 delegates, proportional statewide, 20 percent threshold
Michigan primary: 59 delegates, proportional statewide, 15 percent threshold
Mississippi primary: 40 delegates, proportional statewide with 15 percent threshold and divided 2-1 in congressional districts
The biggest delegate haul in these contests one week after Super Tuesday, and one week before the first pure winner-take-all primaries, is in the nation’s tenth most populous state, Michigan. Each congressional district has the same number of delegates, including the two black-majority districts where very few Republican primary voters are cast.
District of Columbia convention: 19 delegates, proportional, 15 percent threshold
Guam convention: nine delegates, no preference poll
This is the day with the most geographically dispersed contests. It takes 20 hours to fly from Washington, D.C., to Guam. But not many voters are involved: In 2012, 5,104 Republicans voted in Washington and 215 Republicans caucused in Guam.
Florida primary: 99 delegates, winner-take-all statewide
Illinois primary: 69 delegates, winner-take-all statewide, delegates elected in congressional districts bound to stated candidates
Missouri primary: 52 delegates, proportional statewide and congressional district winner-take-all
North Carolina primary: 72 delegates, proportional, no threshold
Northern Marianas caucuses: nine delegates, winner-take-all
Ohio primary: 66 delegates, winner-take-all statewide
March 15 is the first date for winner-take-all contests, and all the 156 delegates in Florida and Ohio, the nation’s third and seventh most populous states, will be awarded to the candidate who wins the most votes statewide. In addition, it’s possible that all or nearly all of the 69 delegates from Illinois, the nation’s fifth most populous state, will go to one candidate. So it’s possible for a candidate who wins all three states to jump to a wide lead in delegates.
Rubio and Bush have both won elections in Florida, and Carson and Mike Huckabee have residences there. But in mid-January polling, Rubio and Bush (who hasn’t faced a contested Florida primary since 1994) trailed far behind Trump and Cruz. Kasich has won congressional and statewide elections in Ohio, and would presumably be a strong candidate there if he is still in the race.
Candidates who calculate that they have no chance winning expensive races in Florida and/or Ohio may choose to target districts in North Carolina, the nation’s ninth most populous state, or Missouri. But any delegate hauls there would be dwarfed by a winner of Florida and Ohio.
In 2012, Romney carried the Northern Marianas with 87 percent of the 848 convention votes.
U.S. Virgin Islands caucuses: nine delegates, winner-take-all
This territorial contest could produce a larger net delegate lead for the winner than a narrow victory in a closely divided state with proportional division of delegates.
American Samoa convention: nine delegates, no preference vote
Arizona primary: 58 delegates, winner-take-all
Utah caucuses: 40 delegates, proportional, 15 percent threshold
Arizona, not a seriously contested state in past seasons, could have the third largest winner-take-all delegation at the Republican National Convention.
North Dakota caucuses: 28 delegates, no preference poll
North Dakota will be caucusing before the spring thaw.
Wisconsin primary: 42 delegates, winner-take-all statewide and by congressional district
A candidate who carries five of the state’s congressional districts, as Romney did in 2012, will have a significant delegate margin in Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus’ home state.
Colorado caucuses: 37 delegates, no preference vote
Caucuses are often dominated by a party’s wingers, left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans. Though in the 2016 Republican contest, it is not clear what that term means.
New York primary: 95 delegates, proportional statewide and by congressional district, 20 percent threshold
New York played a dominant role in Republican national conventions from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, when it was the nation’s largest state and politically marginal in close presidential elections. Now it is only the fourth largest state, is safely Democratic in general elections and its proportional representation rule tends to make it a less valuable prize than the Northeastern states that vote a week later.
Connecticut primary: 28 delegates, proportional statewide with 20 percent threshold and winner-take-all by congressional district
Delaware primary: 16 delegates, winner-take-all
Maryland primary: 38 delegates, winner-take-all statewide and by congressional district
Pennsylvania primary: 71 delegates, winner-take-all statewide, delegates elected in congressional districts bound to stated candidates
Rhode Island primary: 19 delegates, proportional statewide and by congressional district, 10 percent threshold
With 172 Northeastern state delegates at stake, which is more than on any other day between March 15 and June 7, this is the day on which a candidate with appeal in the region could amass a significant delegate majority.
Indiana primary: 57 delegates, winner-take-all statewide and by congressional district
Indiana has the fourth largest delegation, just after Arizona, chosen on a winner-take-all basis.
Nebraska primary: 36 delegates, winner-take-all
West Virginia primary: 34 delegates, elected delegates bound to stated candidates if any
These two states, heavily Republican in 21st-century presidential elections, could produce 70 votes for a single candidate. West Virginia has been identified by one polling analyst as Trump’s best single state, but others have questioned his methodology.
Oregon primary: 28 delegates, proportional, 4 percent threshold
Oregon’s low threshold guarantees a split delegation if the race is still seriously contested.
Washington primary: 44 delegates, proportional statewide and by congressional district, 20 percent threshold
Washington has a higher threshold than its Pacific Northwest neighbor, but could still produce a split delegation if the race is still seriously contested and close.
California primary: 172 delegates, winner-take-all statewide (for just 10 delegates) and by congressional district
Montana primary, 27 delegates, winner-take-all
New Jersey primary: 51 delegates, winner-take-all
New Mexico primary: 24 delegates, proportional, 15 percent threshold
South Dakota primary: 29 delegates, winner-take-all
After a break for the Memorial Day weekend, primary voting ends on June 7, with 273 delegates at stake, 172 of them in the nation’s most populous state, California. Three of the four smaller states are winner-take-all, and New Jersey will presumably go for Christie if he is still in the race. California elects just 10 delegates statewide by winner-take-all, but there is not much regional variation among California’s Republican voters.
In the two seriously contested Republican primaries in this century, 2000 and 2008, the candidates who won statewide also carried the bulk of its congressional districts. In 2000, George W. Bush beat McCain 52-43 percent statewide and carried 38 of 51 districts, and in 2008, McCain beat Romney 42-35 percent and carried 48 of 53 districts, giving big delegate edges to the men who became the party’s nominees.
California Republicans allocate heavily Republican congressional districts more delegates than heavily Democratic districts, but not many more, giving disproportionate leverage to the few Republican voters in places like Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco.
What will happen if no candidate has 1,237 delegates after the votes are counted on June 7? One thing is clear: Candidates still in contention will not wait for the national convention to open on July 18 in Cleveland to negotiate for additional delegate votes. Political junkies who hanker for the brokered conventions of yore, when candidate managers entered the convention city with no idea of who would be nominated, are bound to be disappointed.
The last multi-ballot presidential nomination was at the 1952 Democratic National Convention, when the convention itself was a unique communications medium. In those days, the one place and occasion when politicians could meet and conduct sensitive negotiations was in person. In those days, long-distance telephone calls were expensive and inconvenient, jet air travel nonexistent and the Internet very much uninvented.
Technology has changed all that. Now you can be sure that every competent presidential campaign will have the cellphone number and email address of every delegate on file and will be in contact with possible supporters long before the last primary votes are cast. It is possible that there will be multiple ballots in Cleveland, because of state laws or state party regulations binding delegates to vote for a certain candidate on the first ballot. But deals can be made for second-ballot support, and once they are made, the convention can be as robotically choreographed as all recent national conventions have been.
This doesn’t guarantee an absence of sturm und drang. But it does mean that political junkies are not going to have to sit through favorite-son nominating speeches, floor demonstrations and lengthy delegate protests.
Michael Barone is Senior Political Analyst for the Washington Examiner, co-author of The Almanac of American Politics