by Quin Hillyer
It’s not the ceiling, it’s the floor.
For those wanting to understand and analyze presidential primaries – not in terms of who should or shouldn’t win, but instead in terms of trying to figure out who’s actually ahead in the “horse race” towards a party’s nomination – this focus on floor rather than ceiling is the single most important lesson to learn.
Let me explain.
In a multi-candidate field like this year’s Republican race, a contestant in the early primaries and caucuses does not need to achieve a pure majority of votes to be proclaimed the day’s big “winner.” All he needs is a plurality. In an eight-way race, a solid 25 or 28 percent of the vote could very well put a candidate in first place in a state’s primary or caucus. The way the media plays up who “won” and who lost, a New Hampshire primary vote haul of 26 percent for Candidate A, while candidate B gets 24 percent and the other six candidates split 50 percent in various amounts, is treated as a major triumph for Candidate A.
Each state has its own rules for apportioning delegates to the national convention, but most states also award delegates in a way that also emphasizes the order of finish rather than the actual percentage of votes won. For a purely hypothetical but fairly representative example, a state with 30 delegates to the national convention and seven congressional districts might award three delegates to the winner of each congressional district, with the remaining nine delegates all going to the statewide winner. If Candidate A came in first place in, say, four of the districts, he would get all 12 delegates from those districts, plus the nine “bonus” delegates for coming in first statewide – so his tiny two percentage margin of victory would be translated into 21 of the 30 total delegates. Thus is a small plurality translated into a major victory.
Because what really matters in a presidential nomination contest is how many delegates pledged to each candidate get chosen for the party’s national convention, these state habits of over-rewarding small victories make a huge difference in the overall battle.
This is where ceilings and floors come in. It doesn’t matter, early on, which candidate has the highest potential “ceiling” of votes. There might be a candidate who could earn the support, in the long run, of the vast majority of a party’s voters, but who doesn’t excite people enough to be the first choice of a plurality in an early state. That candidate’s “ceiling,” meaning his highest potential vote in the long run, may be high, but that does him little good if he can’t finish first or second in the multi-candidate field.
On the other hand, there may be a candidate who is literally the least favorite candidate for a clear majority of a party’s voters – but who, by virtue of a higher name identification from past campaigns, or by virtue of really “connecting” emotionally with a segment of voters, will get at least 22 or 24 percent of the primary vote in every state of the union. This candidate’s “ceiling” (his highest potential vote within a party contest) might be rather low – but his “floor,” meaning the vote percentage below which he just will not fall, is solid.
If a candidate absolutely will not get less than, say, 24 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race, then he’ll likely finish first or second in every single primary. After a string of firsts and seconds, and the media attention and delegate pledges that go along with those high finishes, this candidate with the high floor suddenly becomes the almost sure winner of the party’s nomination.
That’s what happened four years ago with John McCain. McCain was perhaps the single least popular Republican candidate for around half of the GOP electorate. His ceiling wasn’t high. But after being familiar to so many voters over so many years, McCain also had a committed cadre of Republican voters for whom he was the first choice no matter what. In short, he was the candidate with the highest floor. Sure enough, McCain kept coming in first or second in every early-voting state, and soon built an insurmountable lead in number of delegates pledged to him.
The same basic scenario, except perhaps without the intensity of negative feelings, applied in 1996 when the long-familiar Bob Dole won the Republican nomination. The same held true in the 1984 Democratic nomination race won by Walter Mondale over John Glenn, Gary Hart, and others.
In this year’s Republican contest, Mitt Romney is playing the “high floor” game. Other candidates bounce up or down in the polls, but Romney, a familiar figure like McCain, Dole and Mondale before him, stays constant in the low 20s. This doesn’t mean Romney will necessarily win the nomination. It does mean he is positioned to be in the race for the long haul even if a majority of Republicans, in polling data, say they aren’t thrilled by him.
For both Romney’s supporters and his opponents, this is the situation to understand as events unfold. From a purely analytical standpoint, this is why other candidates will take risks to try to go high enough over Romney’s “floor” to knock him into second place. It’s also why Romney is likely to play things safe, wanting to ensure he doesn’t erode his floor’s foundations.