Now comes Super Tuesday, the biggest day of contests in the nominating races for both parties. You're going to hear a lot about the delegate count because, in each party, the races Tuesday account for almost half the delegates a candidate needs to win.
Of course, the rules for awarding delegates are way more complicated than just who gets the most votes. And the parties make it difficult by doing things differently in each state. But we put together a cheat sheet to show you how candidates can run up their scores.
There are plenty of arcane rules on the Democratic side, some of which even depend on state Senate districts. We focused on the Republicans because their rules are even more bizarre.
In many states, the delegate allocation is only sort of proportional
Many Super Tuesday states divide their delegates based on a proportion of the total vote. But Southern states like Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Oklahoma also award a large number of delegates by congressional district, and that's where candidates can amass big numbers.
In each of those states, each congressional district has three delegates to award. Hit 50% of the vote, or two-thirds in Tennessee, and you win all three delegates. The states also have rules for what happens if no one gets more than 50% of the vote in a district. That's where things get a little weird.
In Texas, for example, if nobody gets to 50% in a district, the delegates are split between the winner and the runner-up. Let's say that in one congressional district in Texas, Ted Cruz beats Donald Trump 37% to 36%, with Marco Rubio coming in third at 19%, and John Kasich and Ben Carson tying for fourth with 4% each. Cruz would walk away with two-thirds of that district’s delegates and Trump with one-third, even though they finished almost tied. If Cruz won 50.1% of the vote, he would walk away with all the district's delegates.
There are different ways to finish second or third
Many of the same states also have special rules for statewide delegates that allow candidates to gain a few extra here and there. In Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma, 0.01% of the vote can mean the difference between getting almost half the statewide delegates and getting none at all.
That’s because in those states a candidate must hit 20% of the popular vote (15% in Oklahoma) to qualify for a share of statewide delegates. This can have a real impact on how hard candidates fight for a bigger share of the vote.
For example, the latest Monmouth poll out of Alabama has Trump leading with 42% of the vote to Rubio’s 19% and Cruz’s 16%. If the results Tuesday night mirror the polling, Trump will win all of Alabama’s statewide delegates, and Rubio and Cruz will receive none. If, however, Rubio manages to eke out one extra percentage point, he will get to split delegates with Trump according to their shares of the total vote, and he will walk away with almost a third of Alabama’s statewide delegates. The same is true in Tennessee, where Trump leads by similar margins and both Cruz and Rubio are teetering on that 20% threshold.
Texas is a little different. If only one candidate gets above 20%, then that candidate splits the vote with whoever gets the second most votes, regardless of how well that candidate does. If the person in third wants any of that state’s 47 statewide delegates, that person needs to hit the 20% mark.
That may be why the super PAC for Marco Rubio, who is polling in third place in the Lone Star State at around 19%, has been spending a bunch of money there. If he manages to beat 20% and win a few congressional district delegates along the way, he could walk away with more Texas delegates than if he won 100% of the vote in Vermont.
Almost anyone can caucus in Minnesota
You may have heard certain primaries and caucuses described as open, meaning that members of either party can vote. Minnesota has an open contest—so open that you don’t even need to be registered to vote. Basically anyone can show up to vote in either the Democratic or Republican caucuses.
Minnesota is still holding caucuses, so showing up involves more work than in a primary state. But any candidate whose supporters can gather large groups of people on Tuesday will have an advantage. And crossover voting and independents may help outsider candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Colorado Republicans won’t even be voting for candidates
The best way for a Republican to win any of Colorado’s 37 delegates is not to get the most votes of any candidate in the caucuses there. That's because Colorado Republicans won't be voting for candidates—they'll be voting directly to elect “precinct delegates.” The allocation of Colorado’s delegates will not be determined by the Super Tuesday caucus but instead at two future events in April.
Sound confusing? It is.
Colorado Republicans decided that they wanted their delegates to remain “unbound” at the Republican National Convention, meaning they wanted any delegate from Colorado who attended the convention to be free to vote for any candidate he or she chose.
This used to be the norm in a lot more states, and in 2008 and 2012 it was how the Ron Paul campaign got a bunch of delegates chosen for the convention from states Paul didn't actually win.
The Republican National Committee passed a rule to do away with unbound delegates, but Republicans in Colorado, where voters had chosen losing candidates Mitt Romney in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, wanted to be sure their delegates wouldn’t be forced to vote for someone who had dropped out of the race by the convention. So they got around the national party’s rule by scrapping the presidential preference poll at their caucuses.
This year, Colorado Republicans won’t be voting for candidates, but instead voting for delegates to attend either their district or state convention in April. That means the key to winning Colorado’s delegates may be to earn the support of dedicated people who can win those precinct elections. And candidates will have until mid-April to woo anyone who manages to win a precinct election, so don't hold your breath for definitive results from Colorado's GOP caucus on Tuesday night.