Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are competing fiercely for an Iowa win next week – but for all the attention on the first-in-the-nation caucuses, the key to victory lies more in the battle for delegates.
While an Iowa or New Hampshire win brings headlines and donations, the nominee will ultimately be the candidate who can best navigate that less-visible, more complex delegate game that stretches well beyond early-primary balloting.
The endgame is simple enough. The candidate who gets 1,237 of 2,472 delegates wins the nomination.
However, the process each state uses to award those delegates – including how candidates can claim them at the GOP convention – is a based on a hodgepodge of dizzying rules.
They are rules that must be mastered to win.
“The rules of the delegate process matter enormously,” The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost told Fox News.
Perhaps the biggest misconception is that the nominating process essentially is over after the balloting in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada ends in late February.
“Iowa only represents about 1 percent of delegates,” said Lisa Boothe, conservative commentator and president of High Noon Strategies.
Still ahead is Super Tuesday when Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas (with 155 delegates) and others vote March 1.
And the contests continue all the way into June. More than half of all delegates are allocated after March 15, with 172 of them at stake in California on June 7 alone, the final 2016 GOP primary day.
All of that means candidates who can at least compete in the early states and keep the campaign donations coming long enough could mount a late-stage surge. With some delegate-heavy states voting later, they offer hope to candidates who struggle out of the gate.
But the rules vary.
Consider, only eight states are “winner-take-all,” meaning all the delegates go to the plurality winner of that state’s primary or caucus.
Other states divvy up their delegates proportionally, under different formulas, or award most – but not all – of their delegates to the winner.
Josh Putnam, a University of Georgia political science professor and creator of the website frontloading.blogspot.com which breaks down the delegate game, explained that the state-of-play will largely be determined by polling, fundraising and organization, and endorsements – in turn affecting delegate tallies.
“Eleven candidates are not all viable,” said Putnam. “Trying to assess the impact of the delegates relies on this matrix.”
The modern-day nominating process started after the 1968 election, when the McGovern Frazier Commission tried to tie it to voter choices at primaries and caucus, not convention wheeling and dealing.
The Republican National Committee altered the delegate appointment process this year – and shortened the primary season, after arguing that a drawn-out process contributed to Mitt Romney losing in 2012 to President Obama.
The changes essentially focus on primaries in early March, in which delegates will be proportionally allocated based either on the statewide primary/caucus vote or on the combination of the statewide and congressional district votes.
Obama expertly played delegate chess in the 2008 race against Hillary Clinton. Despite Clinton appearing to narrowly win the popular vote in that primary battle, Obama racked up delegates in caucus states – and benefited from Clinton-backing states being penalized for violating party vote rules.
By early June, Obama essentially had enough delegates to win the nomination.
FoxNews.com’s Joseph Weber contributed to this report.