Many Pennsylvanians who follow politics want the Keystone State’s presidential primary to matter. They observe the candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere holding rallies, visiting local diners, and kissing babies. They want some of that attention by candidates and the media. They feel like the kid in high school, neglected by the popular kids and never being invited to the parties or named to the Homecoming Court. Sorry, but Pennsylvania’s Republican presidential primary—held on April 24—won’t be very meaningful this year either, and it will most likely remain meaningless until the primary rules are changed so that delegates are actually apportioned by the popular vote.
You might be thinking that the Republican presidential primary is a fractured race where the frontrunners will be fighting for every delegate from now until the convention or until securing the necessary 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination. Why then, won’t Romney and Santorum (and possibly Gingrich) be fighting for delegates in Pennsylvania’s primary? The answer is simple: it’s the rules of the Republican primary. Republicans in Pennsylvania will indeed vote for Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, or Paul, but those votes won’t legally determine how the delegates in the state are distributed. That’s why it’s sometimes called a “beauty contest,” although a beauty contest might be more meaningful since the votes of the judges actually count.
Pennsylvania will send 72 delegates to the Republican convention in Tampa this year, and 59 of those delegates will be selected in the primary election. The other 13 include three state party officials—which is the case for Republicans in all states—and 10 at-large delegates appointed by the state GOP chair. Those 59 delegates will be elected from Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts (three or four per district) and those delegates are unpledged. (To the contrary, the rules for the Democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania require that delegate candidates list their preferred candidate beside their name on the ballot.) The Republican delegates can vote for whomever they wish at the convention. The vast majority of voters will not recognize the names of delegate candidates on the ballot, and they almost certainly won’t know whether a delegate will vote for Romney or Santorum or potentially someone else at the convention. It’s possible that some delegate candidates will seek to publicize their candidate preference, but that would be costly for delegate candidates and difficult for voters to remember.
Now, if Pennsylvania’s presidential primary were the only contest held that day, the popular vote outcome might be meaningful in shaping perception of the race. A Romney or Santorum victory might say something about the strength of either of the campaigns. What contributes to the meaninglessness of the Pennsylvania’s primary is that four other states will also hold contests that day: New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware. It’s like a “Super Tuesday” for the Northeast. In those four other states holding primaries that day, the vote is meaningful when it comes to delegate distribution. New York is the big prize as it will award 95 delegates; 34 of those are awarded based on statewide voting results, while 58 are distributed based on results within Congressional districts. In Connecticut, 10 delegates are based on statewide results and 15 are based on results in the Nutmeg State’s five congressional districts. In Rhode Island, 16 delegates are based on statewide results. In Delaware, it’s winner take all for 14 delegates.
Given these others races, where votes are meaningful and delegates are needed, it’s rather obvious that candidates will allocate the scarce resources of time and money to those states. Certainly the candidates will spend some time in Pennsylvania so they don’t do too badly in the beauty contest. But if Romney, for example, is close getting 50 percent in Connecticut, which would give him all 10 of its at-large delegates, is he going to make another trip to Connecticut or Pennsylvania? Is he going to spend more on commercials in Pennsylvania or Connecticut?
Many people might say that rules for delegate distribution only concern the insiders, but there are consequences to these rules. If individuals don’t believe that their vote is meaningful, there will be less desire to turn out to vote. If candidates don’t believe it’s worthwhile to invest time and money in a state campaign, voters won’t get information and may not be mobilized by campaigns. For the future, if Republicans want to have a meaningful primary, its party leaders—who determine the rules—are going to have to make votes count when it comes to delegate selection.