2012: Will the Republican Delegate Rules Changes Prolong their Primary Season?

I know it is early to start thinking about the 2012 presidential election, but hey, we are only 510 days away from the Iowa Caucuses so we might as well start!

Last week, the AP reported that former NM Governor Gary Johnson is mulling a run for president. So why should anyone care that a relatively unknown, former governor of a small state is thinking of running for president? Two reasons: Gary Johnson is Ron Paul’s favorite presidential candidate, and the Republican Party has recently changed its rules so that all the states having primaries before April 1, 2012 will allocate their delegates proportionally instead of winner-take-all.

The change in the rules to mandate proportional allocation of delegates may end up having a significant impact on the eventual selection of the Republican Presidential nominee. John McCain’s victory in 2008 was primarily determined by his key primary victories in early winner-take-all primaries in South Carolina, Florida, California, Missouri, New Jersey and New York. If the delegates had been awarded proportionally in 2008, McCain’s 47% of the primary vote might have left him short of the necessary delegates for the nomination, especially if Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee had stayed in the race until the convention. (For a great source for all 2008 primary results you can visit Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections)

Which leads us to Gary Johnson, and the 2012 Republican Presidential primaries and caucuses. Gary Johnson is the former Republican governor of New Mexico who has very libertarian views on a number of issues – cutting government spending, reducing taxes, legalizing marijuana – and this has made him the favorite candidate of Ron Paul (if Paul doesn’t run for president himself again in 2012.) Ron Paul made a small splash in the 2008 primaries and caucuses, but ended up with only a handful of delegates – mainly because of the delegate allocation rules at that time.

In 2008, Ron Paul did much better in caucus states (12.3% of the vote) than in primary states (5.6%). Ron Paul’s best caucus performances were in the following states:
Montana 24.5%
Washington 21.6%
North Dakota 21.3%
Maine 18.4%
Alaska 17.3%
Minnesota 15.7%
Nevada 13.7%
Kansas 11.2%
Iowa 10.0%

If Gary Johnson could match or exceed Ron Paul’s performance in some of these caucuses, and win 15% to 25% of the delegates in many of these states under the 2012 proportional allocation rules, he could become a significant force at the Republican convention. In a closely contested race, these prospective Gary Johnson delegates could determine the nominee, or at least become a significant nuisance, especially if the early round of primaries and caucuses do not provide a consensus nominee among a group that could include Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour and a cast of thousands.

In 2008, we saw how the Obama campaign took advantage of their edge in low-turnout caucus states to build a significant delegate advantage over Hillary Clinton. In 2010, we have seen the success of Tea Party candidates in low-turnout Republican primaries, such as the Alaska primary that unseated Senator Lisa Murkowski and the delegate selection process in Utah that unseated Senator Bob Bennett. By tinkering with their delegate selection system, the Republicans seem to have assured a long 2012 primary season that gives passionate fringe minorities a lot more influence over the selection of the eventual nominee.

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