How obscure formulas hurt Donald Trump and help later-voting Democrats

Donald Trump’s bid for a first-ballot GOP nomination win is hindered not just by opponents or demonstrators, but by an obscure equation.

Political junkies focus on how states award delegates, but not on how parties reward states. Delegate allocation formulas can double some states’ electoral vote share (South Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska and North Dakota Republicans) or reduce it by 30 percent (Arkansas, Vermont and Nebraska Democrats).

So far, Republican math has cost Trump about 75 delegates versus second-place Ted Cruz. That might not sound like many, but it’s about 5 percent of the 1,237 needed to win.

The Democrats’ version means that, starting Tuesday, states yet to vote get more delegates than those who have. The change hasn’t really altered the Clinton/Sanders battle, but it does mean each delegate to come is worth more than delegates already picked.

Logically, a party’s nominating process would reflect the Electoral College, since that’s how presidents get elected. But strategically, there’s not much sense worrying about places that never vote for you. Therefore, both parties reward loyalty, though by different means.

Republicans favor Romney 2012 states, which split about 250 bonus delegates (out of 2,472 total). States with GOP governors, Congresspeople, and party-controlled legislative chambers divvy up another 200.

Democrats add states’ 2004, 2008 and 2012 Kerry and Obama votes and divide by the nationwide total; if your state voted more blue, it receives more delegates.

Rewarding successful states makes sense if your convention is really just a party — and it usually is, with nominations long decided.

But in a rare contested year, parties could hurt themselves diminishing purple states like Ohio (20 percent GOP penalty) and Nevada (23 percent Democratic penalty). Incredibly, three swing states — Colorado, Florida and Virginia — are penalized by both parties (though minimally by the Democrats). Here’s the chart:

Author calculations using data from The Green Papers, retrieved March 21, 2016

There’s only one place in America both parties favor: The District of Columbia.

D.C.’s bonus is small: 5 additional GOP delegates, and 2 Democratic delegates (of 4,056 selected by voters). But other distortions are bigger. Republicans dock California 81 delegates — 6 percent of what’s needed to win — while Texas loses 64 Democratic delegates, nearly 3 percent of what Bernie or Hillary need.

Republicans also have a significant small state bias. Each state gets 5 delegates per U.S. Senator, but only 3 per U.S. Representative, which magnifies the Electoral College’s parallel bias (two Senators for every state, no matter how unpopulated).

Small states are bonuses states, including any state with 6 or fewer electoral votes. Meanwhile, the eight biggest states — California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan — are penalized. (Author math, with Green Papers data.)

So far, the allocation formula favors Cruz, who has won states with a combined plus-55 delegates. Trump states are minus-20. Kasich’s Ohio is minus-17; Rubio’s Minnesota & D.C. a collective minus-3.

Democrats, conversely, prefer large blue states. Incorporating presidential popular vote dilutes that small-state Electoral College tilt.

Dems then add a significant factor Republicans ignore: the calendar.

Beginning March 22 — this Tuesday — states that “cluster” elections with two neighbors receive 15 percent more delegates:

  • March 22: Arizona, Idaho, Utah
  • March 26: Alaska, Hawaii, Washington
  • April 26: Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania
  • June 7: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana

Clustering is why Alaska, Idaho, D.C., and Hawaii Republicans have gone to the polls, but Democrats haven’t. The practice can save candidates travel and advertising money (if TV markets cross state lines).

Then, on April Fool’s Day, a timing bonus kicks in: 10 percent for any April contest; 20 percent thereafter.

Maryland is the most rewarded Democratic locality, getting 26 percent more delegates than electoral votes would predict. The true-blue state benefits from popular-vote averaging, plus 10 percent for an April 26 primary, plus 15 percent more by partnering with Delaware and Pennsylvania.

(Maryland’s figure would be higher, but both parties award delegates to U.S. territories, which have no electoral votes. This means more “loser” states than “winners.”)

Timing bonuses can be huge even without a cluster bonus. California’s June 7 Democratic primary earns a 20 percent timing bonus, or 60 extra delegates — 2.5 percent of the total needed to win.

Democrats favor big states, but only if they’ve consistently voted Democrat for president. States that hold elections with neighbors get bonuses starting March 22, and April-June states receive 10–20 percent more. (Author math, with Green Papers data.)

Bottom line: 49 percent of Democratic delegates have been awarded from states with 55 percent of the electoral vote.

Democrats use proportionality for all state races, but Republicans allow many methods, including including winner-take-all (after March 8), or minimum percentage thresholds to split delegates. Small/red bias may push Trump further away from first-ballot triumph, but a generalized winner’s bonus is why he’s so close, winning 47 percent of delegates on 37 percent of the vote.

So back to D.C.: how did it come out the sole double winner?

Democrats gave the capital a 20 percent bonus for going last (June 14), overcoming large-state bias. District Republicans — already helped by the small-state bias — got 3 extra delegates (perhaps because D.C. can’t elect governors, Senators, or legislatures). In the end, the red-state party over-represents the bluest-voting Electoral College member.