PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is widely expected to score a big victory in Rhode Island’s presidential primary next Tuesday. But even a double-digit win won’t be enough to give him a major delegate advantage.
In some states, Republican Party leaders have written their rules to ensure a windfall of delegates for the candidate who comes out on top or who passes the 50% threshold, as in Florida or New York. But the Rhode Island GOP’s delegate rules are far friendlier to second- and third-place finishers.
A WPRI.com analysis shows that even if Trump wins Rhode Island with 57% of the vote – as the latest projection from New York Times forecaster Nate Cohn suggests – the mogul would receive fewer than half the 19 delegates available in the primary.
State Rep. Joe Trillo, honorary chairman of Trump’s Rhode Island campaign, argued the rules have hampered the state’s ability to have a major influence on the contest.
“If we were winner-take-all then we would be a lot more relevant than we are right now,” Trillo told WPRI.com. “I think we should seriously talk about some of the things that this state needs to do moving into the future to make it more relevant.”
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Rhode Island GOP Chairman Brandon Bell disagreed, arguing the impact is positive because the rules give John Kasich and Ted Cruz a reason to contest the state despite the near-universal assumption Trump will win it.
“Obviously he’s going to make that argument, because The Donald is doing very well in Rhode Island, God bless him – he’s done a good job,” Bell told WPRI.com. But “I think it’s very, very fair that everybody can earn delegates, and every delegate counts in this particular election,” he said.
The rules for awarding delegates, which are set by individual state parties, have drawn far more attention than usual this year as Trump labors to win the 1,237 needed to clinch a majority, while Cruz and Kasich try to hold down his numbers to force a contested convention they think they can win.
The best way to understand how the Rhode Island GOP will allocate its 19 delegates is by dividing them up into three buckets: three based on the results in the 1st Congressional District, three based on the results in the 2nd District, and the other 13 based on the results statewide.
The rules for the two congressional districts are particularly helpful to Kasich and Cruz. As long as a candidate earns at least 10% of the vote, he is entitled to at least one of the district delegates – and with only three delegates to hand out in each district, the three candidates will split them evenly. (Bell said he expects all three candidates to receive at least 10% of the vote.)
The other 13 delegates will be divided proportionally, so if Trump receives 57% of the vote, he will receive seven of the statewide delegates, presuming party officials round down. Based on the Times projections, which have Kasich winning 29% and Cruz winning 14%, they would receive approximately four and two statewide delegates.
The upshot: Trump would end with nine Rhode Island delegates, Kasich would receive six and Cruz would receive four – giving the latter two a slight bonus over their statewide vote percentage, and a far better outcome than if the state simply granted Trump all 19 delegates under Trillo’s preferred winner-take-all system.
The only way for Trump to overcome the math is to achieve 67% of the vote in the two congressional districts, which would entitle him to two district delegates instead of one and presumably deprive Cruz of his should he come in third place.
“I’m hoping Trump will get 67%, which would be a great thing,” Trillo said.
Bell said the delegate rules were crafted last year by Republican National Committeewoman Lee Ann Sennick along with himself and Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias, in consultation with national Republican lawyers. The rules were then approved by the Rhode Island Republican State Central Committee before receiving the green light from the national party last September, he said.
Bell said the delegate rules were modeled on the rules that existed in 2008 and 2012, but some changes were required based on orders from the national party. Among other differences: under the 2012 rules, the threshold to qualify for any delegates was 15%, instead of the lower 10% being used this year.
“These are the rules, and guess what? These were the rules when Donald Trump got in,” Bell said. “We had proportional rules, so it’s not like we approved them in September because he had a good summer. This has nothing to do with any anti-Trump sentiment by any means.”
(To make things even more confusing, voters will be casting separate votes on the primary ballot for who specifically should serve as statewide and district delegates for the candidates – and voters aren’t limited to selecting delegates aligned with the candidate they picked at the top of the ticket. On top of that, three of the statewide delegates are pre-picked rather than elected – Bell, Sennick and Frias – but they are required to vote based on the proportional allocation.)
The delegate rules could be part of the reason Kasich has already scheduled a town hall at Bryant University for Saturday morning, while neither Trump nor Cruz has committed to visiting Rhode Island yet. The other four states voting next Tuesday – Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware – all present larger opportunities not only because they mostly have more delegates at stake but because most have more upside for a frontrunner.Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi