Why Moderate Republicans Keep Winning the Nomination

Republican voters in blue states have more power than Republican voters in red states.

Conservative activists in the United States like to complain that there is a Republican “establishment” keeping their candidates from winning presidential nominations. Given how far to the right Republicans have veered in recent years — to the point where Mitt Romney felt he had to reinvent himself as a strong rightwinger four years ago to win the nomination — such laments may seem incredible.

Turns out they have a point.

Disproportionate influence

FiveThirtyEight reports that Republicans in Democratic-voting states have a disproportionate influence in the party’s primary elections.

Just one in five Republican senators and only one in ten Republican representatives in the House come from states and districts that voted for Barack Obama in 2012. Yet those same states have more delegates at stake in the party’s presidential nominating contest: 1,247 against 1,166 from states that Romney won last time.

This explains why Republicans have selected relatively moderate presidential nominees while the party’s members in Congress have continued to veer right.

Part of the reason is demographics. Blue states — those that vote for Democrats — tend to be more populous, hence they have more delegates in both parties’ primaries.


But the Republican Party also has unique rules that benefit blue states more than red ones.

The Republican National Committee allows state parties to decide whether to award their delegates — who formally nominate the party’s presidential candidate at a national convention in July — on a winner-takes-all or a proportionate basis. Most opt for the latter.

Proportionate selection can either be done based on the statewide result or based on the winner in each congressional district.

That’s where it get interesting.

Under the rules, three delegates must be at stake in every district — no matter their population or partisan lopsidedness.

As a result, a district in the multicultural Bronx of New York City, which gave just 5,315 votes to Romney in 2012, has as much power in the presidential primary as the whitest suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama where 233,803 residents voted for Romney.

More power

FiveThirtyEight calculates that 832 delegates, about a third of the total, will be awarded based on the results at the district level.

The average blue district awards one delegate per 28,912 Romney voters while the average red district awards one delegate per every 56,714 Romney voters.

Put another way, a Republican voter in an average blue district has nearly twice as much power in the party’s primary as a voter in an average red district.

Thanks to this disparity, if a hard-right candidate like [Ted] Cruz dominates deeply red Southern districts in the primary, a more electable candidate like [Marco] Rubio could quickly erase that deficit by quietly piling up smaller raw-vote wins in more liberal urban and coastal districts.

Of course, this only confirms what we’ve been saying about the 2016 primaries all along: The establishment always wins.