March will be arguably the most pivotal month in the Republican presidential nomination contest. Throughout the month, the majority of national convention delegates are awarded to candidates in primaries and caucuses across the country. The calendar has two discrete phases. The first, dominated by Super Tuesday on March 1 and running through March 12, gives candidates opportunities to win delegates in mostly proportional-allocation systems. The second phase, kicking off on March 15, marks the introduction of winner-take-all allocation contests.
For a quick refresher on the types of delegates and how the RNC allocates them before we jump into the Super Tuesday specifics, see our last post on the presidential nomination process: The Long and Winding Road of the Presidential Primaries.
Super Tuesday (March 1)
Tomorrow, 11 states—Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia—will hold GOP presidential primaries and caucuses in which 595 delegates will be at stake. That is the largest number of any single day in the primary race.
Four elements of the party rules will affect the allocation of delegates in each state: qualifying thresholds, winner-take-all thresholds, backdoor winner-take-all thresholds, and pooled delegate allocation.
Every state with the notable exception of Virginia requires candidates to receive a minimum percentage of votes in order to qualify to receive any delegates on Super Tuesday. In some states, such as Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas, these thresholds can be as high as 20 percent. With five candidates remaining in the race, it seems unlikely that more than four of them will qualify for delegates in any one of these states. High thresholds on Super Tuesday will prevent trailing candidates from winning delegates, even if the race is very close: in the ten states with qualifying thresholds on Super Tuesday, a candidate in last place but receiving just one percent below the threshold in each state would be deprived of roughly 43 delegates, or about 7 percent of delegates awarded.1
Backdoor winner-take-all thresholds
On Super Tuesday, eight states—all but Arkansas, Texas, and Virginia—have backdoor routes for GOP candidates to win all or most of a state’s delegates due to high qualifying thresholds. For example, in Georgia, which has a 20 percent threshold for at-large delegates but does not have a threshold for congressional district delegates, if only one candidate surpasses the threshold for at-large delegates, he would receive all the delegates in that jurisdiction.
Some states have a different system for allocating congressional district delegates. In Georgia, rather than applying its 20 percent threshold to congressional district delegates, the top two finishers receive delegates unless the first place finisher receives more than 50 percent of the vote. In contrast, in Texas, if only one candidate surpasses its 20 percent threshold, the threshold is waived and the second-place finisher is allocated delegates proportionally along with the winning candidate.
Since the GOP field has narrowed to five candidates since the Iowa caucuses, there are few opportunities for a candidate to exploit this route to a majority unless they win a large plurality of votes. For instance in a state with a 20 percent threshold, if the bottom four candidates each receive 15 percent of the vote, the top-finishing candidate would have to receive 40 percent of the vote in order to be the only delegate winner.
Similar to qualifying thresholds, winner-take-all thresholds set a minimum percentage of the vote a candidate must win in order to receive all the delegates awarded at the statewide or congressional district level. Only Alaska, Massachusetts, and Virginia do not have a winner-take-all threshold on Super Tuesday. These three states, which also have lower qualifying thresholds, will be key targets for candidates that are looking to pick off enough delegates from top-tier candidates to justify remaining in the race after Super Tuesday.
One complicating factor is that in many of the states with winner-take-all thresholds, congressional district and at-large delegates are allocated in separate pools. In these instances, candidates must receive a majority of the vote—except in Tennessee where they must win 67 percent, and Minnesota where the threshold is 85 percent—in either each congressional district or statewide to win all the delegates in each pool.
A few states combine their at-large and congressional district delegates when awarding them. This means that all of the delegates will be awarded based on the outcome of the statewide primary or caucus results. On Super Tuesday, Alaska, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia pool their delegates. There are two main reasons for this: either there is only one congressional district in the state and separating at-large and district delegates into two pots would make no difference in allocation, like in Vermont and Alaska; or to ensure that delegates are awarded in near perfect proportion to the statewide vote, like in Massachusetts and Virginia.
After Super Tuesday: March 2-14
Between Super Tuesday and the so-called Mega Tuesday on March 15, an additional 11 states and territories will hold primaries and caucuses, but only 356 delegates, or about half those of March 1, will be awarded. Most of these states maintain similar characteristics to the Super Tuesday states. Many, such as Michigan, Maine, and Mississippi have winner-take-all thresholds and relatively high qualifying thresholds of 15 percent. One difference though is that a contingency of states (Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Hawaii) do not have winner-take-all thresholds or backdoor winner-take-most triggers despite having a qualification threshold. This means that there are fewer obstacles for trailing candidates to collect delegates.
Super Tuesday will be a hugely important day in the GOP race for the nomination. The results, and those during the following two weeks, could solidify a frontrunner or provide an alternate candidate the chance to become this cycle’s comeback kid.
On the other hand, Super Tuesday is not the last chance for a comeback. By the end of tomorrow, 728 delegates will have been awarded in total, too few for any candidate to clinch the 1,237 delegates necessary to win the nomination. Phase two of the march through March, beginning on the 15th, will introduce new rules including winner-take-all systems that will change the nature of the race. One way or the other, we are about to take a plunge into the most important month of the race.
1 Rough estimate using state-by-state rules for at-large and congressional district allocation in Super Tuesday states. Estimate holds several assumptions: (1) no candidate surpasses the 50 percent threshold to trigger a winner-take-all system; (2) a candidate in fifth place does not receive any congressional district delegates if they are not pooled with at-large delegates; and (3) delegate totals are rounded up to the nearest whole if above .5, and rounded down if below .5.