The winner-take-all Republican primaries in Florida on Jan. 29, and one week later in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, might seem to favor Republican contender Rudy Giuliani because so much of the battle will be fought on or near his home turf.
Winner-take-all Florida, home to many New York émigrés, is where Giuliani has campaigned almost exclusively for the past several weeks.
In other states, such as Missouri and Arizona, the Republican primaries are also winner-take-all contests. The Democrats, however, have no such primaries or caucuses.
“Winner-take-all” means if a candidate wins a plurality of the vote in a state, or in a congressional district, he gets all of the delegates available in that state or district.
Giuliani aides have insisted that a focus on winner-take-all states was key to their strategy. Many of the states are liberal-leaning, which means a centrist candidate like Giuliani could fare better than a staunch conservative.
Indeed, Giuliani aides noted that even without winning a single delegate before the Florida contest — which they haven't — they could likely take the lead in the delegate count on the eve of Feb. 5.
Ultimately, Giuliani campaign advisors say, they are playing a delegate game. A candidate needs 1,191 delegates to clinch the Republican nomination.
How it will work in New Jersey
In New Jersey, the state’s 52 Republican delegates are allocated according to the results of the state-wide primary.
In a multi-candidate field, Giuliani, or one of his GOP rivals, could get a mere 17 percent of the total votes cast and get all the state’s delegates.
The New Jersey Republican State Committee made its decision to switch to a winner-take-all primary last June, after Giuliani entered the race and after the New Jersey legislature voted to move the state’s primary from June to February.
In previous election years, New Jersey’s June primary was a non-event since it took place long after the nomination had been locked up.
“We knew New Jersey would have relevance for a change” in deciding who the nominee would be, explained Ocean County, N.J., Republican chairman George Gilmore, who was a proponent of the change and who is also the state chairman for the Giuliani campaign.
“The best thing for New Jersey and for the Republican Party was to make New Jersey as important as we could for presidential candidates,” Gilmore said.
“There aren’t that many other winner-take-all states,” he argued, so New Jersey should loom even larger in importance.
“It raises our stature almost equal to California,” which is using a more complex form of winner-take-all in its Republican primary.
California: A complicated game board
California makes the job more difficult for the GOP candidates.
Each of the state’s 53 congressional districts – even the ones represented by Democratic House members – is allotted three GOP delegates.
If a candidate gets a plurality in a given congressional district, he gets all three delegates from that district.
In addition to the 159 delegates from congressional districts, the California GOP also awards 11 other delegates to the candidate who wins the most votes statewide.
Since nearly two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts are represented by Democratic House members, the California GOP rules dictate a strategy of candidates looking for pockets of support in Democratic congressional districts.
For example, the very Democratic San Francisco district represented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, still has some Republicans in it – Pelosi’s GOP opponent in 2006 election got 19,800 votes – and those Republicans are up for grabs.
There are nearly 5.2 million registered Republican voters in the state; only registered Republicans can vote in the GOP primary.
High cost of competing in California
“California would have had more clout if the primary were in March, rather than on Feb. 5” with other states, said veteran California Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum.
The GOP contenders “can’t afford to campaign in this state” — due to the time and expense of travel from the East Coast to California, the high cost of TV advertising in California’s media markets, and the immense size of the state.
“You can be on TV in San Francisco and no one sees you in San Diego,” said Hoffenblum, adding that “as of now, no significant money is being spent by any Republican here.”
The outcome in South Carolina and Florida will determine who chooses to travel to and compete in California.
If Giuliani is propelled toward the nomination based on victories in winner-take-all states — and that seems like a big “if” at this point — it won’t be the first time that winner-take-all has helped decide a presidential nomination.
Eight years ago, Sen. John McCain went into the winner-take-all California primary against George W. Bush, hoping to score an upset win.
“There’s no doubt of the absolute importance of California,” said McCain as he toured the state. California Republicans chose Bush, giving him 61 percent to McCain’s 38 percent, dooming McCain’s bid.
McGovern's win in 1972
In 1972, George McGovern, the most left-leaning of the Democratic presidential contenders, was battling the more traditional liberal Hubert Humphrey and the conservative George Wallace, a fierce opponent of school busing to achieve racial integration.
As political historian Rhodes Cook pointed out, the 1972 primary season ended with the three rivals each having won major primaries and each having garnered about one-quarter of the total Democratic votes.
McGovern won the June 6 California primary with 43 percent of the vote, edging Humphrey who won 39 percent.
Due to California's winner-take-all rule, McGovern got all of California’s delegates and entered the party’s convention with a big lead in the delegate tally.
At the convention, McGovern’s foes tried to strip him of many of his California delegates, reducing his share based on his 43 percent of the statewide vote.
But McGovern won the convention battle and got the nomination. He met disaster in November, winning only one state as Wallace and Humphrey Democrats abandoned him by the millions.
A Democratic Party commission dominated by allies of Walter Mondale and Sen. Edward Kennedy changed the party rules in 1981, but kept winner-take-all primaries in states such as California, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Jackson challenges winner-take-all
In 1984 Jesse Jackson, challenging Mondale for the nomination, charged that winner-take-all primaries were a form of racial discrimination and should be scrapped in favor of proportional primaries.
“People know these rules were stacked, they know who stacked them, and they know why they were stacked,” Jackson told The New York Times in 1984.
As a result of an accord between Jackson and 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis, the Democrats got rid of winner-take-all primaries.
But the idea of giving the plurality candidate all the fruits of victory has its defenders.
Observing the struggle in 1988 between Jackson and Dukakis, Frank Fahrenkopf, Republican national chairman under President Reagan said, “Winner-take-all primaries close the fight for the nomination quicker. Then there's time before the national convention to heal wounds. At the convention, you can give the presidential candidate the full spotlight.”
But the Democrats’ lack of winner-take-all primaries since 1988 hasn’t prevented them from settling on a nominee very early in the primary season: Both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 had the nomination secured by February.
As the '72 McGovern example proves, the winner-take-all method does not always result in a happy outcome for the party.
If Giuliani uses winner-take-all victories to catapult to the nomination and then wins in November, strategists may give the method a closer look.
NBC/National Journal Reporter Matthew Berger contributed to this story.