March 23, 2016
G. Terry Madonna & Michael L.Young
On April 26 the voters of Pennsylvania finally get their say in the 2016 train wreck more formally known as the Republican presidential nomination process.
The uniqueness of this opportunity needs to be noted. With one real exception (in the Democratic Party in 2008) - the late date of the Pennsylvania primary has made the state irrelevant to picking nominees in modern times.
True, just four years ago (2012), the Republican nomination battle almost reached the state when two-term Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, after winning 12 contests, dropped out of the race only days before he would have lost his own state to Mitt Romney.
But other than perhaps Rick Santorum - everyone knew it was over long before Pennsylvania - it was just too late.
The one that actually did matter was in the Democratic Party as noted. In 2008, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama engaged in a six-week slugfest in the state, complete with debates, campaign stops and millions in television commercials. As one wag put it: the candidates spent enough time in the state to qualify for state residence status.
But in 2016 the Democratic race is over or will be by the time the campaign bus hauls into the Keystone state. So if presidential politics is your game, the GOP race is the one to watch.
Indeed, some 82,000 thousand Pennsylvanian’s have switched their registration to Republican this year suggesting many are caught up in the intrigue, drama, and the enthusiasm of the Republican race.
And why not? The state’s large cache of 71 delegates makes the state a prime target in the race for the Republican nomination.
But in politics, it’s rarely simple; in Pennsylvania politics, it’s never simple.
That’s because Pennsylvania Republicans choose their delegates in a manner seemingly designed to confuse both the presidential candidates and the voters.
Of the 71 delegates in play this year, 54 of them are allocated to the state’s 18 congressional districts, three to each district. These delegates are unbound, free to support any candidate at any time in the nomination process regardless of which presidential candidate wins the particular CD they are running in. The other seventeen delegates include ten at- large, three party leaders and four bonus delegates. Only these 17 are bound to support the winner of the statewide vote on the first ballot.
The candidate who “wins” the state with a plurality or majority of votes will be duly declared the winner in what amounts to a beauty contest. But, what happens in the congressional districts is what matters. And what happens there is anything but clear.
In reality, many running as delegates will have chosen a candidate, but the ballot does not reveal these choices. So many voters can’t tie a delegate to a presidential candidate. This bears repeating: the name of the presidential candidate does not appear on the ballot with the delegate candidate.
It’s a little like the old childhood game of “blind man’s bluff.” In fact, the Pennsylvania’s presidential primary has been described as a “blind primary.” Many voters are literally blind to which presidential candidate they are voting for.
As we said, it gets confusing.
Especially for one Donald Trump - and anyone else trying to do the convention math requiring the nominee to get at least 1,237 delegate votes.
Regardless of who wins the statewide primary, 54 delegates will be unbound on the first ballot. In short, Pennsylvania Republicans will arrive at the Cleveland convention with a delegation tailor made to be “brokered.”
There is both good news and bad news for those who prefer their politics served up sizzling.
First, the bad news: Pennsylvania will not matter on April 26 in putting Trump or any other candidate over the top for the nomination. If any state does that, it will be one that votes after Pennsylvania, maybe going as far as California on June 7. The convention math supports no other conclusion.
Now the good news: Pennsylvania may well have a decisive role at the convention. Assuming Trump arrives at the convention just short of 1,237 delegates, the 54 unbound Pennsylvanians could play a decisive role on the first or subsequent ballots. If no majority is reached on the initial ballot, Republicans will have their first brokered convention since 1948. And that convention required three ballots to pick the nominee.
Nobody knows what will happen if the 2016 convention becomes the first GOP convention in almost 70 years to be contested. But if it happens, no one should be surprised if Pennsylvania Republicans play a decisive role in the outcome.
Nor would this be an historical anomaly for Pennsylvania at brokered conventions. From the Civil War until the rise of modern presidential primaries, the Keystone state repeatedly played the role of presidential kingmaker in brokered conventions.
Could that happen again in 2016?
Certainly, the political stage seems set for such a role: a large uncommitted delegation anxious to be relevant again in a party undergoing its worst crisis in 80 years.
It does have a familiar ring to it.
Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly, and previous columns can be viewed at http://www.fandm.edu/politics. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2016 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.