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How does a candidate win the party's nomination?
On Jan. 3, 2012, the Iowa caucuses represented the first vote in the 2012 presidential primary. The mainstream media breathlessly reported "Romney won by 8 votes over Santorum! And Ron Paul placed a respectable third!"
As usual, the mainstream media got it wrong.
The mainstream media reported on the popular vote -- the number of actual people voting for each candidate. But the real result is the delegate count. It's the same as the electoral college vs. the popular vote in the general election -- the popular vote is what's reported, but it doesn't actually count.
Candidates win the presidential nomination by accumulating a majority of delegates, who vote at a convention. In 2012, the Democratic nomination is uncontested -- hence Barack Obama will be nominated, regardless of what happens in the Democratic primaries, at the Democratic Convention in Charotte, NC, on Sept. 3-6.
The Republican primary is hotly contested. The Republican Convention, in Tampa Bay, Florida, on August 27-30, will have 2,286 voting delegates. To get nominated, a candidate must accumulate 1,143 delegates in the primaries and caucuses.
The presidential campaigns focus on getting above the "magic number" of 1,143 delegates. The Iowa caucus, despite all the media hoopla, assigned only 25 delegates -- 13 to Romney and 12 to Santorum. Iowa is a small state and so is New Hampshire -- the N.H. Republican primary on Jan. 10 will assign only another 12 delegates. Here is the popular vote count, and the delegate vote count, from the Iowa caucus:
If you want to think like a presidential campaign, think about delegates -- don't think about the popular vote. All public polls report on the popular vote, but the campaigns run internal delegate polling! When the Huntsman campaign said, "We're not going to campaign in Iowa" they meant "We don't believe we can win one delegate there, but we do believe we can win some delegates in N.H. if we focus our resources there."
The Ron Paul campaign DID campaign in Iowa -- because they thought they could win some delegates -- but they failed. Ron Paul's 3rd-place finish got the same number of delegates as Huntsman's 7th-place finish: Zero! The delegate counts tend to amplify differences in the popular vote -- because they are assigned by precinct summed into districts -- each state decides their own methods for converting popular vote into actual delegates.
In the chart below, we summarize the number of delegates for each state. The columns are explained fully below the chart, but in summary:
With this chart, you're equipped to look beyond the media hoopla and see what the candidates' campaigns look at: How many delegates are at stake? And how can we focus our resources to maximize our delegates?
The campaigns have more detailed charts than the one above. How exactly the district popular votes convert to delegates matters -- for example, if a candidate runs strongly in one particular city, the candidate might campaign heavily there, to get the majority in that district, and hence its delegate, even if they lose elsewhere in the state. Campaigns call that "campaign strategy" -- and it's mostly unreported in the mainstream media.
Some of the other relevant details beyond the chart above are how the number of At-Large Delegates are assigned. Every state gets 10 at-large delegates ("At-Large" just means "not based in one district). Then a state gets additional seats for each federal elected Republican; for each state chamber with a Republican majority; how the state voted in the 2008 presidential election; and other "bonus delegates."
The asterisks above each have an interesting story behind them. (THe asterisks mean a state lost hal its delegates for breaking the party rules). States have an incentive to hold their primaries early, since the media and the candidates pay more attention to them. But the national party has an incentive to make every state count, for fairness, and to build up their party memebership. So the national party established rules about when states can hold their primaries, with special rules for those states with traditionally early votes. States can choose to break those rules, as many did, but half of their delegate count is then removed.
For additional information (in GREATLY more detail than this summary!) see: http://www.thegreenpapers.com/P12/R-Alloc.phtml