by Lowman S. Henry | January 24, 2008

PA Presidential Primary could be decided by February 12th

As both Republicans and Democrats approach “Super Tuesday” without consensus on their Presidential nominations it is becoming increasingly likely Pennsylvania’s April 22nd primary may become relevant, even pivotal in deciding the winners.

But, the out come of those races could be pre-ordained, especially for Republicans, by what is happening right now. The bottom line of Presidential primaries is delegates. In order to win nomination for President of the United States a candidate must acquire a majority of delegates to his/her respective nominating convention. Wins and losses count only so much as they impact the selection of delegates.

Pennsylvania’s primary is essentially a beauty contest. The outcome of balloting for the actual presidential candidate has absolutely no bearing on the selection of delegates who run in separate races by Congressional district. True, the top candidates in the Presidential balloting can create a coattail effect for their delegate candidates, but a vote for a specific candidate for President is meaningless unless the voter also casts ballots for that individual’s delegate candidates.

The process is a bit simpler for Democrats, whose party rules require candidates for delegate to the national convention to run “committed” and places the name of the candidate to which they are pledged beneath the delegate’s name on the ballot. This gives voters a precise guide to which delegates they should vote for on behalf of their preferred presidential candidate.

Republican rules, however, require all candidates for delegate to officially run “uncommitted,” even if the delegate candidate supports a particular Presidential candidate. Thus, in the voting booth, Republican primary voters have no way of knowing which delegate candidates support which presidential candidate unless they have researched that matter before closing the curtain.

This creates unusual and often uncontrollable dynamics. For example, in 1980 George H.W. Bush won the Pennsylvania Presidential “beauty contest,” but superior grassroots work by the Reagan campaign delivered most of the state’s delegates to Reagan.

Fast forward to 2008 and that grassroots work is currently underway. In each of Pennsylvania’s 19 Congressional districts candidates for delegate are circulating petitions to have their names placed on the April primary ballot. While all eyes are on Super Tuesday, any aspirant who hopes to add to his delegate count in Pennsylvania has to be working hard in Penn’s woods right now recruiting delegate candidates.

This gives an advantage to Presidential candidates who have strong support among party regulars, in this case that would be Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. The Mitt Romney and especially the more insurgent Mike Huckabee campaigns are less well positioned to effectively lay the ground work for a meaningful Pennsylvania victory.

Add in the wild card fact that delegate seats to the national conventions are often won by party activists and elected officials who have name identification and organizations they can count on to get elected. Many who win delegate seats will be truly uncommitted because they are people who routinely go to conventions, but who may not feel strongly about a particular candidate.

And so Pennsylvania’s primary is largely being won or lost by the delegate recruitment and petition signing currently underway. If the GOP approaches the September convention with the outcome in doubt, the Keystone state with its large number of technically uncommitted delegates could in fact be the key to winning the nomination.

The last time such a scenario presented itself was in 1976 when President Gerald R. Ford edged out Ronald Reagan by just 117 delegate votes to win the GOP nomination. Ford and Reagan engaged in a highly personal battle for delegates that the New York Times said “had the quality of a death struggle.”

In his book “Reagan’s Revolution,” former Reagan operative Craig Shirley details how the White House dangled such perks as invitations to state dinners and private meetings in the Oval office. Reagan and Ford both worked the phones and jetted to state delegation meetings in the hope of winning uncommitted delegates.

Pennsylvania played an unusual role in that battle as Reagan tapped then-U.S. Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate breaking tradition by making the announcement weeks before the convention rather than at the convention. The gambit ultimately failed, but the Reagan campaign learned its lessons well and played the delegate game more successfully four years later on the way to winning the 1980 nomination.

This year’s field of contenders may also learn the lessons of Pennsylvania’s delegate selection process the hard way. The key to winning delegates is getting them lined up right now. Otherwise, there could be another “death struggle” for votes as the GOP gathers in Minnesota in September.