As the lengthy presidential primary and caucus season moves into its end stages the electorate is beginning to realize that winning delegates is more important than winning states. The value of delegates is rising in both the Democratic and Republican contests as Bernie Sanders' victories fail to translate into delegates and the GOP race has become so fragmented a contested convention is now a very real possibility.
Not since 1976 have Americans witnessed a contested convention. When the GOP met in Kansas City that year incumbent President Gerald R. Ford entered the convention just short of having a majority of delegates. He ended up beating Ronald Reagan for the nomination before losing the General Election to Jimmy Carter.
In recent decades presidential nominating conventions have been little more than three or four day infomercials. The primary and caucus system determined nominees well in advance of the conventions which then were heavily scripted to establish campaign themes and play to a television audience. As a result voters have lost sight of the fact that primaries and caucuses do not pick the nominee — delegates do.
That is not to say voting in a primary or a caucus doesn't matter. It does as many delegates are bound — at least on the first ballot — to the outcome of a primary or caucus win. Most, but not all, will be so encumbered. But, should it take more than one ballot many of those delegates become unbound and are then free to vote for whomever they choose. There are also "super delegates" on the Democratic side: party officials who are not bound to any specific candidate, and uncommitted delegates on the Republican side who are similarly unfettered.
The race for the Republican presidential nomination began with 17 candidates competing creating an environment which raised the potential for a contested convention. Looking at the math it will be difficult for any candidate to secure a majority of committed delegates prior to the convention, but Donald Trump and Ted Cruz still remain mathematically viable. Ohio Governor John Kasich has been mathematically eliminated, but is pinning his hopes on winning over delegates in a contested convention.
As if this were not confusing enough for the average voter, Pennsylvania Republicans will face a challenge when they step into the voting booth on April 26th. The first step is simple enough: voters can cast their ballot for the presidential candidate of their choice. The winner of the statewide presidential primary will then get 17 at-large delegates committed to him on the first ballot in Cleveland. If the convention takes more than one ballot to arrive at a nominee, those 17 may then vote as they see fit.
Now for the complicated part: Three delegates will be elected from each of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional districts. The names of the delegate candidates will appear on the ballot, but the word "uncommitted" will appear under each. This means the voters will not be able to tell by looking at the ballot for whom each delegate candidate is committed — or if they are committed as all. Thus, to make your vote really matter you must go into the polls knowing not only which presidential candidate you will vote for, but you must also know which delegate candidates are supportive of your presidential candidate.
Some delegate candidates say they will vote for whichever presidential candidate wins their congressional district. You therefore have no way of knowing whether or not that delegate candidate will support your choice for president until after all of the votes are counted.
Presidential campaigns will be working to elect their delegates, but this year's primary requires voters themselves to do a bit of homework before going to the polls. To effectively support a presidential candidate the voter must vote not only for that candidate, but also for three delegates pledged to him. And they must know who those delegate candidates are before going into the polling place, otherwise their delegate votes are a shot in the dark.
Famed political consultant Jim Carville once put a sign on the wall of Bill Clinton's campaign headquarters that read: "It's the economy, stupid." That was to keep the focus on the campaign's central message to voters. This year the presidential primary in Penn's Woods will actually matter. We can update the old Carville saying to: It's the delegates, stupid.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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