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    Proportional vs. winner-take-all primaries

    FAQ: Winner-take-all South Carolina primary

    After the South Carolina primary (Jan. 21, 2012), the pundits breathlessly assert, "It's all tied up: One for Newt; one for Mitt; and one for Santorum." (Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary; Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire primary; Rick Santorum retroactively won the Iowa caucus). So is that true, that it's all tied up?

    No, of course not. The way to keep score is to count delegates, not to count states. South Carolina has 25 delegates -- more than any one candidate had after the New Hampshire and Iowa contests. And furthermore, South Carolina was a "district-winner-take-all" primary -- so almost all of its delegates went to Newt; whereas the other two contests were "proportional" -- so their delegates were split. Hence Newt Gingrich is well in the lead -- but it won't matter in a few weeks (see below). Here is the delegate count post-South Carolina:

    Newt Gingrich002323
    Mitt Romney127221
    Rick Santorum130013
    Ron Paul0303
    Jon Huntsman0202

    Proportional vs. Winner-take-all

    Why did South Carolina delegates almost all go to one candidate, while the previous two contests were split? South Carolina chose a "district-winner-take-all" contest. Each state can decide whether to award delegates proportional to the popular vote in each district, or some other method. New Hampshire and Iowa both held "proportional" contests, so more than one candidate earned delegates.

    Winner-take-all contests tend to be harder fought by the frontrunners -- and ignored by the non-front-runners. Conversely, proportional primaries give second-tier candidates a chance to earn a few delegates even if they can't win the popular vote. Jon Huntsman earned two delegates in the proportional New Hampshire primary, after focusing all of his campaign effort there for months. Gov. Huntsman dropped out after N.H. because he faced two winner-take-all contests -- S.C. and Florida -- which he was sure to lose. South Carolina uses a "district-winner-take-all" method -- the majority winner in each district gets all the delegates; Florida uses a statewide "winner-take-all" system -- the top vote-getter gets all of the state's delegates.

    Ron Paul, despite holding 3rd place in delegates before S.C., has not campaigned at all in Florida, because he has no chance of winning, and hence no chance of earning any delegates at all. Rep. Paul spent his time campaigning instead in Nevada, which holds a proportional primary on Feb. 4 (one week after Florida).

    Some states choose delegate methods in between those two extremes. Some states have "two winners take all", so that 2nd place in the statewide popular vote gets some delegates but 3rd place does not. And some states assign delegates by "district winner takes all," with on y one winner in each state-defined district (which usually ends up with some splitting of the delegates, unless one candidate has a large lead statewide).

    Florida determines the delegate lead

    Next week's winner-take-all primary in Florida awards 50 delegates to the winner. Looking at the chart above, whoever wins Florida immediately takes the lead. But that lead won't last long. Starting the week after Florida, six contests occur during February, totaling 187 delegates -- enough to swamp the result of the Florida primary. Of the 187 delegates awarded in February, 128 come from proportional contests, 29 from a winner-take-all primary; and 30 from a two-winners-take-all primary. By the end of February -- or perhaps by the middle of February -- all of the January contest delegates will hardly matter. The February contests:

    StateElection TypeDateDelegates
    NevadaProportional CaucusFeb. 428
    MaineProportional CaucusFeb. 424
    ColoradoProportional CaucusFeb. 736
    MinnesotaProportional CaucusFeb. 740
    ArizonaWinner-take-all PrimaryFeb. 2829
    MichiganTwo-winners-take-all PrimaryFeb. 2830

    And one week later, on March 6 2012, comes "Super Tuesday": eleven contests in one day. Five proportional contests award 157 delegates, and partial winner-take-all contests award 209 delegates. By then, you'll know how to properly interpret everything!

    StateElection TypeTotal Delegates
    AlaskaProportional Caucus27
    GeorgiaTwo-winners-take-all Primary76
    IdahoProportional Caucus32
    MassachusettsProportional Primary41
    North DakotaProportional Caucus28
    OhioDistrict-winner-take-all Primary66
    OklahomaDistrict-winner-take-all Primary43
    TennesseeDistrict-winner-take-all Primary58
    VermontDistrict-winner-take-all Primary17
    VirginiaDistrict-winner-take-all Primary49
    WyomingProportional Caucus29

    For additional information (in GREATLY more detail than this summary!) see:
    -- Summary by Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief,, Jan. 5, 2012.

    Candidates' Issue Pages:
    Pres.Barack Obama
    V.P.Joe Biden
    GOP Candidates:
    Rep.Newt Gingrich(GA)
    Gov.Jon Huntsman(UT)
    Rep.Thaddeus McCotter(MI)
    Rep.Ron Paul(TX)
    Gov.Rick Perry(TX)
    Gov.Buddy Roemer(LA)
    Gov.Mitt Romney(MA)
    Sen.Rick Santorum(PA)

    Third Party Candidates:
    Gov.Gary Johnson(NM, Libertarian)
    Jill Stein(MA, Green)
    Mayor Johnson Anderson(UT, Justice Party)
    GOP Withdrawals:
    Rep.Michele Bachmann(MN)
    Herman Cain(GA)
    Gov.Haley Barbour(MS)
    Gov.Chris Cristie(NJ)
    Mayor Rudy Giuliani(NYC)
    Gov.Mike Huckabee(AR)
    Gov.Bobby Jindal(LA)
    Gov.Sarah Palin(AK)
    Gov.Tim Pawlenty(MN)
    Donald Trump(NY)