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The ‘wacky’ delegate rules: a New York primary primer

They’re called delegates, but they could be kingmakers: the people who will actually vote and choose the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees.

But the names of the 95 GOP kingmakers from New York remain unknown.

Meantime, Democrats in the state won’t even really vote for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. They’ll vote for 163 of the state’s 291 Democratic kingmakers themselves. The delegates have names like Poornima Subramanian and Carol S. Przybylak and Lorie Longhany and Ramona Popowich – that is, names that may be familiar to some political insiders, but not the average voter.

Those are just some of the myriad oddities of the process behind New York’s April 19 presidential primaries, the most important primary the state has seen in decades.

The two party primaries in New York have two things in common. They’re both restricted to party members, and they’re both essentially 27 different contests – one for each congressional district in the state.

Beyond that, though, the two parties have two entirely different sets of rules for electing delegates in New York, as well as for selecting their unelected delegates.

Those rules, combined with the competitiveness of the contests on both sides, will lead to an intensely political week ahead, filled with strategically planned candidate visits and campaign commercials and robocalls.

And strange as that may seem, all of that may not matter in the end. The delegates you don’t vote for, from other states, may actually determine who the nominees are.

To understand all of this, it helps to know what the rules are. So here’s a look at them – including one rule that an in-the-know observer, David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, called “wacky.”

The basics

There is one basic difference between the New York primaries and earlier headline-grabbing contests in Wisconsin, Michigan and New Hampshire.

The primaries in those states were, to one degree or another, “open.” That means you don’t need to be a Democrat to vote in the Democratic primary and you don’t need to be a Republican to vote in the Republican primary.

In New York, however, the primaries are “closed” – meaning party loyalists choose the winner.

And that’s just the way it should be, according to the Erie County Democratic and Republican chairmen.

“I believe that it’s not fair to Democrats to have registered Conservatives or independents voting in the Democratic primary,” said Jeremy Zellner, the Democratic chairman.

Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy agreed.

“In a closed primary, you get a true indication of what your party believes,” Langworthy said.

Then again, some candidates tend to thrive in open primaries. For example, independents have been flocking to Sanders’ candidacy, and the result is that every primary he has won has been open.

In contrast, New York’s closed primary “levels the playing field for Hillary,” said former Erie County Democratic chairman Leonard Lenihan.

Both Clinton and Sanders, as well as the GOP candidates, also must cope with the fact that most of the state’s delegates – 81 on the Republican side and 163 on the Democratic side – are divided by congressional district.

That means this is not really a statewide primary. If a candidate sees an opportunity to win delegates in a particular congressional district, he or she will likely campaign harder there.

You already can see proof of that in the candidates’ campaign calendars and schedules.

For example, Sanders, a progressive favorite, is starting his upstate campaign in Kingston, a liberal enclave in the Hudson Valley.

And Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who has tended to do better in areas with better-educated voters, is campaigning this weekend in two places filled with them: suburban Rochester and the northern suburbs of New York City.

GOP votes not equal

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Donald Trump’s chief rival for the Republican nomination, campaigned in the South Bronx last week. On the face of it, that might seem wacky. After all, according to the Cook Political Report, the congressional district including the South Bronx is the most Democratic in the nation.

But thanks to GOP rules, the 15,000 or so Republicans in the 15th congressional district in the South Bronx get to send three delegates to the party’s convention in Cleveland this summer. That’s the same number of delegates that will come from the 27th congressional district, a suburban and rural expanse between Buffalo and Rochester that’s home to nearly 187,000 Republicans.

In other words, in the race for the Republican nominee, a GOP vote in the South Bronx is more than 12 times more valuable than a GOP vote from Clarence. So a candidate like Cruz will get 12 times the bang for the buck by visiting the neighborhood that’s home to the New York Yankees.

The three-delegate-per-district rule is a nationwide quirk for the GOP, and Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, said it’s one of the most important.

That’s because Trump has done particularly well in districts with big minority populations but few Republicans, he said.

“For all of Donald Trump’s complaints that the Republican Party has treated him unfairly, he’s actually been treated favorably by the party’s wacky rules,” Wasserman said.

One quirk in the rules that is more particular to New York is one that is new this year.

In years past, it was simple. If a candidate won in a particular district, he got all three delegates.

But now, a candidate gets all three delegates only if he gets more than 50 percent of the vote. The winner gets two delegates if he gets less than 50 percent, with the runner-up getting the other delegate.

That change was made “to really encourage candidates to come and compete here and make New York really relevant,” said Jessica Proud, a spokesperson for the New York State Republican Party.

The state party also eliminated the old rule that forced candidates to collect signatures for their slates of delegates in each district. Langworthy, the Erie County GOP chairman, said the party did that because the party’s 2012 nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, fielded delegates with little longtime involvement in the party, thereby angering party activists who were shut out of the party’s convention.

This year, though, members of the State Republican Committee will choose the actual delegates for each district in May.

That change makes the ballot simple for Republicans. All they have to do is vote for their candidate: Trump, Cruz, Kasich or Ben Carson, who didn’t quit the race in time to have his name removed from the ballot.

Democratic difference

The ballot for the Democrats is not nearly so simple.

There’s a different ballot for every congressional district, and voters vote both for their favorite candidate and the delegates who are aligned with that candidate.

For example, if you live in Buffalo, in the 26th Congressional District, you would vote for either Hillary Clinton and the seven delegates aligned with her, or Bernie Sanders and the seven delegates aligned with him.

What’s more, the number of delegates varies from one district to another. Districts with a lot of Democratic voters get seven delegates, while those with an average number get six. The least Democratic districts get only five delegates.

That tends to minimize the problem the Republicans have, where the districts with the fewest Republicans have the most voting power in presidential primaries.

In addition, all the Democratic delegates in New York are awarded proportionately. So if Clinton and Sanders s
plit the 27th district 50-50 or thereabouts, each will get three delegates.

That contrasts with some Republican states that allow the statewide winner to take all the state’s delegates. And that “proportionality rule” disadvantages candidates like Sanders who are behind a candidate with a big lead in delegates.

“It absolutely advantages Hillary” because it makes it harder for Sanders to catch up, said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who is not aligned with either candidate.

Unelected delegates

For all the attention paid to the primaries and caucuses, the great irony of the 2016 primary season is that the delegates you don’t vote for hold a disproportionate share of the power.

Clinton’s big advantage is her lead in “superdelegates” – the members of Congress, governors and party leaders who, under Democratic rules, automatically become delegates to the convention.

There are 44 superdelegates from New York, and like the majority of superdelegates nationwide, the majority in New York have pledged their loyalty to Clinton. Nationwide, in fact, Clinton’s 469-to-31 lead among superdelegates is the biggest reason she has a 657 delegate lead over Sanders.

Superdelegates are just part of the complicated picture on the Democratic side. New York also has 54 “at large” delegates whose first-round votes for the presidential nomination will be apportioned proportionately according to the statewide primary results. Similarly, New York has 30 “pledged party leader or elected official (PLEO)” delegates whose votes in the first round of convention balloting will be divided up proportionately based on the statewide primary returns.

Rules are simpler on the Republican side, where there are no superdelegates. Instead, in New York there are just 11 at-large delegates and three “automatic” delegates (party leaders). Those 14 delegates are awarded proportionately in the same way that the congressional district delegates are in the first round of voting for a nominee.

200 GOP kingmakers

The great irony is that it’s possible that none of this will matter, particularly on the Republican side.

While all of New York’s delegates are bound to a candidate in the first round, there are about 200 GOP delegates nationwide who won’t be bound to anybody.

And if Trump – the only Republican with a realistic possibility of getting the 1,237 delegates required for the nomination on the first round – fails to do so, “those 200 delegates will suddenly be in the limelight,” said Josh Putnam, a political science lecturer at the University of Georgia.

That’s because those 200 delegates from states other than New York will be the GOP kingmakers.

Cruz is already successfully courting those delegates, which is one reason why Putnam – founder of Frontloading HQ, the definitive website on delegate math – predicts Cruz will get the nomination unless Trump secures 1,237 delegates before the convention.

In the highly unlikely event that voting for the Democratic nominee goes to a second round – or the much more likely event that the voting for a Republican nominee goes to a second round – what matters won’t be how New York voters voted. At that point, the state’s delegates are free to vote for any possible president of their own choosing.

Given that Trump has a narrow pathway to claiming the delegates he needs for the nomination before the convention, many pundits now predict the GOP convention will go to a second round of voting, and maybe more.

Cruz has already begun courting delegates elected elsewhere for those later-round votes, and Trump last week hired Paul Manafort – a GOP expert in the art of wooing and counting delegates – to work on his campaign.

The bottom line is that the craziness of the 2016 campaign could just be beginning. And Thomas M. Reynolds, a former Republican congressman from Clarence, wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s the case.

Reflecting on the primary season so far, Reynolds said: “I’m 65 years old, and every time I think I’ve seen it all, something else happens.”


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