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Analysis: Road to the 2016 GOP nomination frontloaded in the South

13 of the 14 Southern states have primaries or caucuses before March 15

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

southern states sm(CFP) — For the gaggle of candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination, success or failure is likely to hinge on how well they can perform in a primary calendar that is frontloaded with Southern contests.

Between February 20, when South Carolina holds its primary, and March 15, when Florida and North Carolina vote, 13 of the 14 Southern states will hold either primaries or caucuses.

CFP Facebook MugshotIn that three-week stretch, a whopping 824 delegates will be up for grabs in the South, about two-thirds of the 1,237 delegates needed to cinch the nomination. And 471 delegates will be decided on a single day, March 1, when seven Southern states will vote in what is being dubbed the SEC Primary (albeit with a bit of ACC and Big 12 mixed in.)

Having almost all of the Southern states vote early (save West Virginia) is a new wrinkle in this year’s primary calendar that will no doubt add to the region’s clout in the nominating process. So it is perhaps not surprising that nine Southern Republicans decided to run in 2016, with six still in the race (as of this writing.)

While the early states might weed some of them out, the Southern frontloading of the calendar might provide temptation for the also-rans to hang on until they get to more hospitable territory, as there is barely more than a month between New Hampshire and Florida.

However, the last two GOP primary battles argue against the idea that Southerners might be particularly hospitable to Southern candidates. In 2008 and 2010,  candidates from outside the South won twice as many Southern contests (16) as candidates from the South (8).

And if the field remains crowded, the rules under which delegates are allocated could leave Southern delegations fractured as the process heads north and west.

Here is how the process generally works: Each state gets a number of delegates who are selected statewide, and it also gets three delegates for each congressional district. The delegates are allocated based on how well a candidate performs across the state and in each congressional district, and the state’s three members of the Republican National Committee are automatically delegates.

In most of the states, there is a threshold percentage that a candidate has to meet before being eligible for statewide or district delegates, ranging from 5 to 20 percent. In a heavily split field, that means that candidates who don’t finish near the top may not get any delegates, but the delegations could be sliced and diced if multiple candidates cross the threshold.

In five states, candidates who win more than 50 percent of the vote statewide or in a district take all of the delegates; in Tennessee, that threshold is 66 percent. But if the field still remains fractured in mid-March, it is unlikely that any candidate will be able to win an outright majority to sweep most, if not all, of a state’s delegates.

Also, two of the larger states–North Carolina, with 72 delegates, and Virginia, with 49–have no threshold, with all delegates allocated proportionally based on the statewide vote. So no one is likely to sweep either of those states.

The two outliers in this process are South Carolina, which votes Feb. 20, and Florida, which votes March 15. In South Carolina, with 50 total delegates, the statewide winner gets all of the statewide delegates, and the winner of each congressional district receives all three. In Florida, with 99 total delegates, the statewide winner takes everything.

So, for instance, if one of Florida’s two favorite sons in the race–U.S. Senator Marco Rubio or former Governor Jeb Bush–lands in first place by even a single vote, he gets all 99 delegates and the other gets nothing. And if neither of them places first, they will have no Sunshine State support at the convention in Cleveland.

The two biggest prizes in the Southern primary calendar are Florida and Texas, where 155 delegates will be up for grabs on March 1.

While Bush and Rubio will be competing in their home state, only one candidate still in the face hails from Texas–U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. And Texas is one of the states where, if a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the statewide or district vote, he or she gets all of the delegates.

So if Cruz, a favorite son with statewide political roots, could win a majority in Texas, he would need to win a majority in just 19 of the state’s 36 congressional districts in order to match the delegate haul that Rubio or Bush might take out of Florida–an uphill climb in a fractured race, but doable.

The biggest wildcard heading into the Southern primaries is what the region’s all-important block of religious conservatives will do. In 2008, when they coalesced around Mike Huckabee, he won six Southern states; in 2012, when they got behind Rick Santorum, he won four. The South was the best region for both, although it did not work for either of them in the end.

 


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