Published on TheHill.com on February 16, 2016
On Tuesday, March 1, millions of Republican primary voters will likely cast ballots that will turn out not to count or matter, causing a massive wave of anger and discontent.
In the March 1 primaries, which will choose a sizable chunk of the delegates in both parties, most states will divide their delegates proportionally to presidential candidates who exceed a minimum threshold of 20 or 15 percent of the vote.
So if, for example, Texas casts 30 percent of its votes for Donald Trump, 30 percent for Ted Cruz and 12 percent each for Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich, Trump and Cruz would divide the state’s at-large delegates evenly, and Bush, Rubio and Kasich would receive none. Similarly, the delegates Texas will choose by congressional district will only go to candidates who get at least 20 percent of the vote.
Millions will vote for candidates who will win no delegates, even if they garner significant shares of the vote. There has been virtually no explanation of this procedure in the media. And even if voters did know about it, how are they to guess whether their candidate will meet the 20 percent threshold or not? They would have to be political consultants, pollsters or pundits to figure out how to make their votes count.
Another way to understand the situation is this: Millions could vote in what they think is a five-way race when, in fact, votes for only the two top candidates will count. These millions may think they are voting in a primary when they are really voting in what amounts to a runoff.
Pundits have wondered when the race for the GOP nomination would be whittled down to two candidates. The answer is March 1, though few voters will realize it and, as a result, millions will in effect lose their vote. In fact, the candidates won’t even know if they have been, essentially, dropped from the race until they see how many states they can pass the threshold in.
All this makes the race against Trump particularly difficult. While the candidate who runs second to the real estate mogul — assuming Trump wins a plurality — will be the only realistic alternative, the anti-Trump voters won’t know who he is. The pollsters may have a clue but will likely differ in their readings and be uncertain.
The dilemma facing voters will be akin to that found in a winner-take-all primary. But whereas in those states everyone knows the stakes and supporters of candidates with little chance of winning know full well that they may be wasting their votes, states that are nominally proportional hold out the illusion that every vote counts when it just is not so.
Only on March 2, when the sweeping impact of the thresholds becomes clear, will voters realize that they must temper their enthusiasm for a candidate with a healthy dose of realism about his prospects.
Among March 1 states, Alabama (50 delegates), Georgia at-large (31 of 76 total delegates), Tennessee (58), Texas (155) and Vermont (16) all require a 20 percent threshold. Oklahoma (43) and Arkansas (40) require a 15 percent threshold, and Alaska (28) has a 13 percent threshold.
During the two weeks after March 1, Louisiana (46), Puerto Rico (23) and Idaho (32) have a 20 percent threshold, while Michigan (59), Mississippi (40) and D.C. (19) require 15 percent.
Of the total 988 delegates awarded during the first two weeks of March, 640 of them — — nearly two-thirds — will be chosen subject to threshold requirements.
So as voters from these states go to the polls, they must consider not only whom they would like to see win the nomination but whether or not their candidate is likely to meet the threshold requirements in their state. Are they voting in a two-way, three-way or four-way race?
They may not know.
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