Some Contests Are More “Nonbinding” Than Others

Rick Santorum had a great night last night — he went three for three in primary and caucus contests, beating Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich handily and gaining a deluge of free media attention. Observers of these events are likely already clear on a few key points:

  • Newt Gingrich wasn’t even on the ballot in Missouri, and Romney had close to zero organization and media effort there as well. Both campaigns have claimed that they didn’t even bother because the primary was “non-binding” (of course, Gingrich also failed to get on the ballot in the more important Virginia primary coming up, so take the previous statement with a grain of salt).
  • The Romney camp is surely disappointed in the results of the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses, given that they made a greater effort to play to win in those states, and now they faced renewed charges that Romney is disliked by Republicans and won’t be able to rally their support against Barack Obama in November. But the spin since last night downplays the results of these contests as well, in part because they are “non-binding.”

So what do we make of today’s media framing of the Santorum wins?  Well, what complicates matters is that, to awkwardly paraphrase Orwell, all non-binding contests are non-binding, but some are more non-binding than others.



First of all, let’s get to a core fact that isn’t being uniformly discussed in media coverage of these contests: all three of them are non-binding when it comes to the selection of GOP delegates to the national nominating convention. Here’s the relevant rules the Republican National Committee set up for this year (emphasis added):

Rule No. 15: Election, Selection, Allocation, or Binding of Delegates and Alternate Delegates

(b) Timing.

(1) No primary, caucus, or convention to elect, select, allocate, or bind delegates to the national convention shall occur prior to the first Tuesday in March in the year in which a national convention is held.  Except Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada may begin their processes at any time on or after February 1 in the year in which a national convention is held and shall not be subject to the provisions of paragraph (b)(2) of this rule.

(2) Any presidential primary, caucus, convention, or other meeting held for the purpose of selecting delegates to the national convention which occurs prior to the first day of April in the year in which the national convention is held, shall provide for the allocation of delegates on a proportional basis.

(3) If the Democratic National Committee fails to adhere to a presidential primary schedule with the dates set forth in Rule 15(b)(1) of these Rules (February 1 and first Tuesday in March), then Rule 15(b) shall revert to the Rules as adopted by the 2008 Republican National Convention.

So, for instance, the Florida primary’s scheduling on January 31st cost the Florida GOP half their delegates as a sanction for breaking the rules.  There are a variety of reasons why state primaries and caucuses would be scheduled in violation of RNC rules: because state law requires a certain date, perhaps, or because primaries and caucuses provide valuable media and political attention to the state, which is good for the state economically and culturally.

What does this have to do with last night? Well, the Missouri primary is non-binding because they will actually allocate their delegates after county caucuses on March 17. The media have reported this part of the story repeatedly: as just one example, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza described Missouri’s primary as “the only so-called “beauty contest” in the Republican presidential race this year.”

But here’s where it gets weird: The same is true of the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses, but the reporting on these is not nearly as clear.  According to Jim Geraghty of the National Review, “Colorado’s actual delegates to the Republican nominating convention will be selected at the state convention April 14; Minnesota will select its delegates on the weekend of May 4–5.”

You wouldn’t know this if you paid attention to Matt Negrin of ABC News, for instance, who reported that (emphasis added)

While the four candidates are competing for delegates — 76 between the two caucuses (none in the Missouri primary) — the real prize is the evolving media narrative that accompanies a surprise victory, or a better-than-expected finish, which Santorum appears to have clinched.

Not so fast, pal — no delegates were awarded last night. As Geraghty explains, both states wanted/needed February caucuses, but didn’t want to lose delegates to the convention; thus, they “emulated Iowa by exploiting the loophole in the RNC’s rule.” So, there were three “beauty contests” last night, not just one.

Wait… what? They emulated Iowa?  That’s right — the Iowa caucuses, the vaunted first-in-the-nation presidential contest, allocate zero delegates. That’s been a regular feature of the Iowa process: as we have previously discussed, the Iowa GOP delegates are decided later by the state party, and they are not beholden to the caucus night straw poll results. For instance, while Mike Huckabee won the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses, all of the Iowa GOP delegates eventually went to John McCain — not that anyone really noticed.

While it’s only a rough metric, consider the following Google searches I conducted this morning regarding the “non-binding” nature of Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri:

As of this morning, internet search hits linking “Missouri primary” to “nonbinding” were about seven times more frequent than hits linking “Iowa caucuses” to “nonbinding,” with similar searches on Colorado and Minnesota falling in the middle. Remember, all four of these states have awarded the same number of delegates: zero.

It seems that the dominant political media frame — accepted by most national politicians — is that Iowa is an important contest and deserves the special attention it receives from candidates and the news media because of its special status… even though no delegates are actually awarded. Colorado and Minnesota, even though they are larger states, aren’t as important as Iowa, but they’re still important enough for news organizations to award delegates from them… even though no delegates are actually awarded. Today it’s only Missouri that gets special attention as a “beauty contest” because no delegates were awarded, even though it has the same overall standing as the other non-binding contests so far with regard to the real delegate count.

CNN at least made a clarification online that they rarely make on primary/caucus election night:

The two caucus states didn’t officially award delegates Tuesday night — that will happen down the road at district and state conventions — but the news media, including CNN, will use them to make unofficial delegate count estimates.

OK… why? They have done this on the night of the Iowa caucuses and ever since, providing a “delegate count” that has little to no basis in reality. Check out their online “delegate calculator” to see how this works, based on candidate election outcomes and whether the contest allocates delegates proportionately or “winner-take-all.” For instance, CNN has Rick Santorum down for 22 delegates so far, primarily on the strength of his wins in Iowa, Colorado, and Minnesota.

Note that the total does not include Missouri, which the CNN map has not recorded as an already-held contest (the states in red)… because it was a “non-binding primary.” But Iowa, Colorado and Minnesota were all non-binding caucuses…???

To make matters more confusing, different news organizations have different formulas for reporting the “delegate count” to us.  CNN reports the race to date as follows:

  • Romney:     86 delegates
  • Gingrich:     35 delegates
  • Santorum:  22 delegates
  • Paul:            20 delegates

However, FOX News has a different story this morning, with the headline “Santorum jumps into second place in delegate race” (emphasis added), which includes Republican “superdelegates”:

Santorum picked up at least 28 delegates while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney got at least six.

Overall, Romney has 107 delegates, including endorsements from members of the Republican National Committee who automatically attend the party’s national convention and can support any candidate they choose. Santorum has 45 delegates, Newt Gingrich has 32 and Ron Paul has nine.

So, to keep the format consistent, here’s the FOX News version:

  • Romney:     107 delegates
  • Gingrich:     32 delegates
  • Santorum:  45 delegates
  • Paul:            9 delegates

Hmm, okay.  And, another county heard from… MSNBC:

  • Romney:     84 delegates
  • Gingrich:     29 delegates
  • Santorum:  14 delegates
  • Paul:            11 delegates

What have the big three cable news networks given us this morning for delegate counts, then?

Romney 86 107 84
Gingrich 35 32 29
Santorum 22 45 14
Paul 20 9 11

Each news organization has their own formula for allocating delegate wins — just one of a number of ways they orchestrate the dramatic competition of the electoral horse race — but what all formulas have in common is that they run contrary to the reality of the process for awarding delegates.

What do we make of all this? Fundamentally, the reinforcement of a basic commonplace of both presidential election politics and news media coverage: Much of what is reported to us as objective, quantitative fact is, in fact, a symbolic construction used to tell a story that serves the purposes of the storytellers. Thus, not only are we reminded that we should listen to the spin of only one candidate at our peril, but we are also reminded to attend to the “reality” of only one news source at our peril as well.


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