Romney’s Big “What If?’

For those Democrats who worry that the protracted primary battle is exposing deep divides in the party’s base, Republican-style winner-take-all primaries are looking more attractive. For at least one Republican, the opposite is true: A Democratic-style primary that awards delegates proportially is looking pretty good right now. His name is Mitt Romney.

Several commentators have pointed out that, if the Democrats played by Republican rules, Hillary Clinton would hold a commanding lead in pledged delegates. (Democratic primaries mete out pledged delegates proportionally based on total votes, while most Republican primaries heap all their delegates on the winner.) Less attention has been given to the opposite question: What if the Republicans awarded their delegates like Democrats do?

To answer that question, Trailhead crunched the numbers from the earlier Republican primaries, back when Romney and Mike Huckabee were still in the race. We assumed that delegates are awarded in rough proportion to the candidates’ overall performance in the state. In reality, this is usually done on a district-by-district basis, but as we have noted on our Delegate Calculator , estimating delegates based on statewide results has a margin of error of only 3 percent.

Between Iowa and Super Tuesday, there were 17 Republican primaries that operated under winner-take-all rules (or something similar). In those states, John McCain won 649 delegates, while Huckabee won 110 and Romney won 105. Note that McCain averaged 36 percent of the popular vote, while Romney averaged 34 percent. The lopsidedness in delegates comes from the fact that McCain won big states like New York and California.

If we postulate a Democratic-style proportional system, McCain would have come out of Feb. 5 with an estimated 336 delegates to Romney’s 291 and Huckabee’s 164.

In the 12 caucuses during that same period, Romney considerably outperformed McCain, netting 188 delegates to McCain’s 55 and Huckabee’s 97.

So here’s the score through Feb. 5—two days before Romney threw in the towel:

McCain Romney Huckabee
Reality 704 293 207
Proportional 391 479 261

If I were Romney, I’d be particularly bitter about California. He won 35 percent of the vote there to McCain’s 42 percent but got only 12 delegates to McCain’s 158. (The winner-take-all system is still done by district, so it appears Romney won at least a plurality in a small number of districts there.)

As the New York Times’ David Brooks wrote yesterday, the Democratic primary has exposed a deep divide in the party between urban, affluent liberals and more rural, working-class Democrats. It’s worth remembering that, just a few months ago, one of the guiding narratives in this election was how deeply divided the Republican party’s various factions were over who to support for their nominee. If the Republicans had a Democratic-style election process, those divides would be bitterly evident. It’s a strong testament to the role of election rules that we are now so focused on the other party’s identity crisis.