WASHINGTON – Look out for some wacky results in the race for delegates in the Republican presidential primaries and caucuses. There might even be a state or two where the second-place candidate gets the most delegates, starting with Tuesday's caucuses in Iowa.
New GOP rules require states that hold nominating contests before April to award delegates proportionally. That usually means a candidate who gets 40 percent of the vote gets 40 percent of the delegates. But not always.
The rules give states a lot of leeway to define proportional, and some states have been pretty creative. For example, in Ohio, the candidate who gets the most votes in each congressional district wins three delegates. Ohio has 16 congressional districts based on the latest census, so 48 delegates will be awarded this way.
An additional 15 delegates will be awarded proportionally, based on statewide results.
Candidates must get at least 20 percent of the statewide vote to qualify for these delegates.
Under this system, it is possible in a close race for a candidate to narrowly win the most congressional districts -- and the most delegates -- but come in second in the overall statewide vote, said Bob Bennett, a member of the Republican National Committee from Ohio.
Early on, battles over small numbers of delegates won't get much attention because candidates are more concerned about winning contests and building momentum. But if the race continues into late spring, like the 2008 battle between Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, delegate totals become much more important.
A tight race could draw a lot of scrutiny over obscure issues like this: If you qualify for 7.5 delegates under a proportional allocation, do you round up to eight or round down to seven? (In Ohio and other states you round up to eight. In Nevada, which is holding GOP caucuses Feb. 4, party officials are still working on those details.)
"All these rules are important in close races," Bennett said. "If you have a blowout, a sure winner, they don't matter as much."
In most national polls, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are the front-runners for the GOP nomination. In Iowa, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also is polling well, raising the possibility of a split vote.
The Iowa caucuses on Tuesday begin the process in that state that will result in 25 delegates being selected for the national convention. At the caucuses, voters will cast ballots in a presidential straw poll, and those results will get the most attention on election night.
Caucus-goers also will elect delegates to county conventions, who in turn will elect delegates to congressional district conventions and the state party convention in June. These are the conventions where delegates to the GOP national convention in Tampa, Fla., are selected.
Each of the four congressional districts will elect three delegates to the national convention. They will also appoint two members to a slate committee, which will choose 13 additional delegates.
The slate is voted on at the party's state convention in June.
The system puts a premium on getting the most votes in individual congressional districts. If a candidate's supporters can control a congressional district convention, they can choose national delegates and slate committee members who support their candidate.
In a tight, three-way race, it is possible for a candidate to narrowly win two of the four congressional districts -- putting him or her in position to win the most delegates -- but come in second in overall votes statewide.
"The delegates are going to reflect the division within the party itself," said John Ryder, a member of the Republican National Committee from Tennessee who chaired the panel that wrote the new proportional rule. "The end result is nobody comes out of a proportional state with a clear mandate, unless of course they do, which would only happen if a candidate generates commanding support among Republican voters."
A total of 2,286 delegates are slated to attend the Republican National Convention in August, and 1,144 will be needed to claim the nomination, according to the Republican National Committee. No candidate can reach that total before April, though a dominant front-runner could build a commanding lead by then.
In the meantime, the primary calendar is full of quirks. South Carolina (Jan. 21), and Florida (Jan. 31), will award all their delegates to the candidate who gets the most votes, even though they are holding their contests before April. Both states already lost half their delegates for holding early contests, so the state parties decided to make them winner-take-all. The RNC says there are no additional penalties for violating the proportional rules.
Michigan's plan for awarding delegates is very similar to Ohio's. But Michigan, which holds its primary Feb. 28, lost half its delegates because it scheduled its primary before March 6, also known as Super Tuesday. GOP rules allow only four states to hold nominating contests before Super Tuesday: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. And those states weren't supposed to schedule contests before February.
Michigan started with 59 delegates, but now has only 30. Nevertheless, party officials plan to award 56 delegates based on the primary (the other three will be the state's RNC members), and simply reduce each candidate's total by half. That poses several problems: Half of 56 isn't quite 30, and what if a candidate wins 25 delegates? Do they get 12 or 13? GOP rules don't allow fractions of delegates.
"We'll work that out once we get closer to choosing the delegates who will go," said Matt Frendewey, spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party.