When I was young, my uncle taught me a game. “The winner,” he explained, “is the person who can hit himself the hardest. You go first.”
After hitting myself—not as hard as I could, but hard enough to cause some pain—my uncle said, “Congratulations, you win.”
In a sense, the states that award delegates proportionally, as opposed to a winner-take-all system, are similar to that game.
That is, for instance, suppose a candidate works his tail off to increase his vote share from 30 to 35 percent. If the state has, say, 60 delegates to award, then this increases his delegate count by only about 3.
If, on the other hand, the state awards delegates by a winner-take-all system, then the same effort—if it also allows the candidate to move from second to first place—increases his delegate count by 60.
Of the seven states that will hold an actual primary tomorrow (instead of a caucus, as will occur in the less populous states of Alaska, Idaho, and North Dakota), the three that come the closest to a proportional system are Vermont, Oklahoma, and Massachusetts.
Vermont adopts an almost perfect a proportional system. Oklahoma and Massachusetts adopt a system where a large fraction of their delegates will be awarded proportionally. The rest will be awarded by congressional district. Specifically, each district will have 3 delegates, and these delegates will be awarded proportionally to the candidate’s vote share in the district.
Although Santorum is expected to win Oklahoma (that is, to win the most votes in the state), even if he does win, his prize will likely be hollow. That is, the vote shares of Santorum, Romney, and Gingrich are all likely to be near 30 percent. Therefore, each is likely to win approximately 30 percent of the delegates—no matter who actually wins the most votes in the state.
The opposite is true with Ohio. Of its 66 delegates, 15 will be awarded proportionally. More interesting is that almost three-quarters will be awarded by a winner-take-all system within each congressional district. If, say, Romney wins only 35 percent of the statewide vote, but wins the most votes in each congressional district, then he will win something like 85 percent of the state’s delegates.
Virginia uses a system similar to Ohio’s. However, it will be less interesting since Santorum and Gingrich will not be on the ballot. No matter what happens tomorrow, Romney should win approximately 80-90 percent of Virginia’s delegates.
Georgia and Tennessee fall in between the Oklahoma and Ohio models. Each awards approximately 40 percent of its delegates according to a proportional system. The rest are awarded by congressional district, where the district adopts a sort of “winner takes two-thirds” system. That is, if the candidate wins the district, but fails to win by an overwhelming fashion (by 66 percent in Tennessee, 50 percent in Georgia), then he wins two of the district’s three delegates. The second-place finisher gets the third delegate.
Although tomorrow night's television coverage will focus much attention on all ten Super Tuesday states, my main focus will be on only one, Ohio.