Photo courtesy of paulinaclemente

It’s been a weird primary season. Like an exciting Preakness race, the remaining Republican candidates are still going strong, and in some ways, the candidacy is way, way up in the air. Unlike previous primaries, we’re no closer to a Republican candidate than when we started this whole thing.

And now the political pundits and reporters are touting “delegate math,” with headlines like “It’s math vs. momentum as Romney, Santorum fight on” (Baltimore Sun) and “Romney’s Delegate Math Still Adds Up” (Wall Street Journal). See, when an election gets or stays tight, estimations won’t work any longer — especially as folks wonder when one of the candidates is going to drop out. It’s important to pull out the calculators or actually look up how many Republican delegates are in play in Illinois (69, if you’re actually curious).

But in all of my reading and listening, I haven’t gotten a good break-down of the delegate math that people keep talking about. I want to know which states Romney has to win in order to clinch the nomination. I want to know which states Santorum has to win to present a credible threat. In other words, how hard would it be for Santorum to pull out a win? What about Gingrich or Paul?

Fact is, math can help clarify these complex ideas — or not.

DISCLAIMER 1: This is as good a point as any to tell you that this is not a political blog. In my rough analysis, which will not be precise, I am not making any statements about whom I want to win the primary. I am not registered with either party, and my political beliefs (which I’ll keep to myself here) don’t play into this post. Of course, those who disagree with my numbers will probably think otherwise, as they are free to do.

DISCLAIMER 2: This post was written on Tuesday, March 20, before the Illinois primary, so those results are not included here — nor, for that matter, are any results in subsequent primaries.

DISCLAIMER 3: I am not a seasoned political journalist, and I’ve done the best I can with a mini crash course on Republican delegates. I’ve fact checked myself as best I can, but to be sure, these counts vary from source to source. If you think you have better numbers, by all means let me know in the comments section. (Just remember rule No. 1: be nice.)


I’ve done some research on this in the hopes I could break this code and give to you straight — while demonstrating that math is indeed useful in reporting, despite the countless journalism majors who have difficulty with liberal arts math. (That’s a joke, ya’ll. Don’t get mad.)

In the process, I discovered the reasons that these projections are impossible: 1) not all delegates have to vote the way their primaries go, 2) some states have winner-takes-all primaries, where the winner of the primary gets all of the delegates, but 3) other states have proportional primaries, where each candidate gets a proportion of the delegates based on the vote.

But there still must be a way for math to help me (and others) understand where we’re headed — even if it’s just a rough sketch — right? Let’s take a look.

There are 2,286 Republican delegates, and in order to win the nomination, a candidate must earn 1,144 delegate votes.  Here’s what the candidates have right now (according to The Green Papers, a website that makes it its business to track these delegate counts):

Romney: 407 (soft*) + 515 (hard*) = 922

Santorum: 170 (soft*) + 239 (hard*) = 409

Gingrich: 133 (soft*) + 157 (hard*) = 290

Paul: 26 (soft*) + 78 (hard*) = 104

*hard delegates are allocated votes and come super-delegate votes, while the soft delegates represent proportional votes, where the primary has been held and the proportional votes are estimated but not confirmed, or are uncertain super-delegate votes

So how many more delegates must each candidate earn before they can clinch the nomination (assuming that all of the soft delegate counts will become hard delegate counts)?

Romney: 1,144 – 922 = 222 delegates

Santorum: 1,144 – 409 = 735 delegates

Gingrich: 1,144 – 290 = 834 delegates

Paul: 1,144 – 104 = 1,040 delegates

See, to me these numbers tell a much clearer picture, but some additional comparisons would help. For example, what percent of the winning delegates does each candidate have, according to these numbers?

Romney: 922 ÷ 1,144 = 81%

Santorum: 409 ÷ 1,144 = 36%

Gingrich: 290 ÷ 1,144 = 25%

Paul: 104 ÷ 1,144 = 9%

(Notice, this doesn’t mean that Romney has earned 81% of the delegate votes. It means he’s earned 81% of the delegate votes he needs to come on top at the convention. And of course by earned, I mean these delegates have been identified as likely (or definitely, depending on the state) voting for Romney at the convention.)

For weeks, we’ve heard that Romney and Santorum are running neck-in-neck. But when you look at those percentages, well, they paint a different picture. Still there’s another number that I think would really help: the percentage of remaining delegates that each candidate must win.

Let’s assume (and this is a big assumption) that there are 1,725 delegates still up for grabs and (another big assumption) that all of the soft delegate counts will become hard delegate counts, just as they are noted here.  Then the candidates would need to win these percentages of the remaining votes in order to secure the nomination.

Romney: 222 ÷ 1,725 = 13%

Santorum: 735 ÷ 1,725 = 43%

Gingrich: 834 ÷ 1,725 = 48%

Paul: 1,040 ÷ 1,725 = 60%

There’s a huge difference between 13% and 43%. I’m not saying that it can’t be done. But with these numbers, this doesn’t look like a close race any longer.

I’m not saying that these are the be-all, end-all numbers that should be used to describe the Republican primary. But I am saying that math can help us understand where the candidates stand. And we absolutely should not depend on the candidates themselves to give us this analysis. Instead, journalists should be spending time with a pencil, paper and calculator (or a spreadsheet) — and some reliable sources — to figure these things out for their readers.

Any thoughts on how the math has been used in reporting this political race? Share them in the comments section.