Pennsylvania, which holds its primary Tuesday, uses a nonbinding “loophole” primary — and that could cost Donald Trump the Republican nomination.
If the state adopted the delegate rules of any other primary, he would probably be an even-money favorite — or better — to amass the 1,237 delegates needed before the convention.
Instead, his chances may come down to the whims of 54 unpledged Pennsylvania delegates.
No other state leaves so many of its delegates unbound — allowed to vote for whomever they please at the convention. That’s because it conducts its loophole primary in two parts. First is the “beauty contest,” which is a presidential primary preference vote. The winner of the beauty contest gets all of Pennsylvania’s 17 at-large and bonus delegates.
But the remaining 54 — the three delegates awarded to each congressional district — are unbound and elected in the delegate selection primary. In this part, voters directly elect delegates to the national convention. What makes Pennsylvania’s Republican delegate selection primary so distinctive is that the ballot includes no guidance on whom a delegate will support at the national convention. (Prospective Democratic delegates commit to a candidate.) A voter will just see a list of names — some of whom might be recognizable, but others might as well be Joe Schmo.
The result is that Pennsylvania, with the seventh-most Republican delegates of any state, ranks 49th in pledged delegates. It’s behind even Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
The two other states with loophole primaries — West Virginia and Illinois — take a somewhat different approach. The delegates pledge whom they’ll support, and their preferences are listed alongside their names on the ballot.
In articles about whether Trump can reach 1,237 pledged delegates by the convention, these 54 Pennsylvania delegates are held out of the analysis.
Trump would be favored to win a majority of Pennsylvania’s 71 delegates under any other primary system. He leads by at least 9 percentage points in every survey in the state and is ahead of Ted Cruz by an average of 44 percent to 28 percent, according to The Huffington Post Pollster.
In a standard proportional allocation, Trump would probably be on track to win at least 40 of the state’s delegates. In a winner-take-most system, like Indiana’s or California’s, Trump would be favored to win at least 60 delegates.
The difference matters a lot because Trump’s prize of 1,237 hangs on a thread. He is probably on track to finish a bit short of 1,237. The Times’ model puts his projected delegate deficit as slightly less than the number of delegates left unpledged (54) in Pennsylvania, meaning he would be projected to win if they were bound delegates.
Although facing a challenge in Pennsylvania, Trump has benefited from other quirks in the Republican primary rules.
Compared with the Democrats’ rules, the Republican ones are far more favorable to a candidate who wins with a plurality of the vote. And with the race as close as it is, any number of tweaks in the rules could make Trump a clear favorite — or an overwhelming underdog.