How Many More Delegates? A GOP Primary Explainer

Host Rachel Martin speaks with Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times, about the mechanics of the GOP primary, the number of delegates apportioned so far and how future contests will determine the delegate count.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One thousand, one hundred and forty-four - that's the number of delegates needed to win the Republican nomination for president. And while it might seem like we've already been through an unusually long campaign this year, here's a reality check: Mitt Romney is the front-runner in the GOP primary race. But by most counts, he's less than a tenth of the way to that magic number.

In part, that's because of the patchwork of nominating contests in the country. We have primaries, both proportional and winner-take-all; and caucuses, both non-binding and binding. So how does it all work? To help explain the mechanics of the Republican primary, we're joined by Nate Silver, of the FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times.

Hey, Nate, thanks for talking with us.

NATE SILVER: Yeah, thank you.

MARTIN: So - so far, voters in nine states have cast ballots for the Republican candidates. Why have so few delegates been chosen at this point?

SILVER: Well, there are a couple of reasons. One is that with the exception of Florida, a lot of these are fairly low-population states. But also, most of the states that went early were punished by the Republican Party, where they lost half their delegates. So New Hampshire, Iowa, Florida - for that matter, also Michigan and Arizona – all got only half as many delegates they would, based on their population, because they had jumped in line to go before they were supposed to.

MARTIN: Hmm. Some of these states, like Iowa, have non-binding caucuses - meaning no delegates get assigned. So do the votes of thousands of caucus-goers have any impact on the delegates? Or are those votes, in a sense, wasted?

SILVER: So, neither - or both, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SILVER: At most caucuses they take two, separate votes. One is what's really just a straw poll, which is your preference for president. Those are the reports that usually get reported on by the media. But in Iowa, for example, or in Maine, you'll then have a separate vote to pick delegates from your precinct that might then go on to the state convention, and then eventually to the national convention after a series of two or three stages.

You will know, in theory, who those delegates are loyal to. But they're technically free agents, so you're trusting them to act, basically, in good faith. And the other thing is that because they are two, separate votes, the results can differ somewhat.

MARTIN: So we also have these so-called superdelegates. Remind us what role these folks play in the process.

SILVER: So these are delegates that are free to vote their conscience, so to speak. There are three for every state. In a handful of states, they are bound to the winner of the state. But in most, they're not. So they function - they're called automatic delegates; that's the preferred term. But they're like the Democratic superdelegates, where they can push a candidate toward a majority - over the top, I should say.

They can use the scenario where, let's say, Romney is not doing great but doing pretty well and he's up to 48 percent or something, based on the committed delegates. Well, then the superdelegates can put him over the top, to 50 percent.

You know, where it could get messy is if, say, Romney has a narrow plurality of delegates but it seems like Santorum, for instance, has more popular support and is ahead in national polls, major states like Ohio and Michigan. And that could get really messy, whether at a brokered or contested convention or not.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that. You bring up the idea of the brokered convention. Explain, exactly, what that means - and how rare are these?

SILVER: Well, we haven't really had a - and people use different terms; it can be a deadlocked or a brokered convention, or a contested convention, right? But that would be, in my kind of strict definition, the case where we go into Tampa and the first day, we're not sure who the nominee is going to be.

There have been cases in the more recent past where the nominee was picked between the time the last state voted and the convention. But if it gets very close, where no one seems to have a clear mandate that represents the will of the electorate - and then you have, frankly, total chaos - I think the chances of that are fairly low. There's still time, in my view, for one candidate to get enough momentum where this discussion will seem silly a couple months out.

MARTIN: Nate Silver, thanks so much.

SILVER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Nate Silver writes the FiveThirtyEight blog for the New York Times. He joined us from our studios in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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