Illustration by Lisa Hanawalt
Illustration by Lisa Hanawalt

For political junkies, this is the midwinter of our discontent. With the Florida Republican primary over with, there is more than a month to go before Super Tuesday, and the next debate is three weeks away. That means I have even less reason for my post-midnight groping for my iPhone to check the latest polls or campaign Twitter feeds.

So, where to turn for a fix? Here’s one idea: Familiarize yourself with the Republican Party’s rules governing delegate selection and convention procedure. Yes, I know: This seems like a subject better suited for C-Span 3. As it happens, though, these rules could determine the party’s nominee and help shape the general election campaign.

Consider the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign. The reason for Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton can be expressed in one sentence: He won because his campaign understood that, under Democratic Party rules, big victories in small states were more important than small victories in big states.

The contrast with the Republican process was stark. John McCain amassed a mountain of delegates under the “winner-take-all” rules of many big states. He won just more than 50 percent of New York’s Republican voters, but won all 101 delegates; 55 percent of New Jersey voters but all 52 delegates. He barely beat Mike Huckabee in Missouri, with a third of the vote, but won all 58 delegates.

Lopsided Victories

Democrats, though, treat the process like the cutting of a cake at a child’s birthday party. They make the split as even as possible. To win lots of delegates in a Democratic contest, you need to win a landslide. That’s just what the Obama campaign did -- targeting caucus states where lopsided victories were easier to come by than in big-state primaries.

The results: In Idaho, a 62-point margin of victory -- 13,000 votes -- gave the Obama campaign 15 delegates to Clinton’s three. In Kansas, 74 percent of the votes, an 18,000-vote margin, yielded Obama a delegate advantage of 23 to nine. Clinton won the Ohio primary by 200,000 votes, but her 53 percent to Obama’s 45 percent netted her just nine more delegates. A 200,000 vote victory in Pennsylvania -- a 10-point margin -- netted Clinton 12 more delegates than Obama.

Do the math: Obama gained more net delegates from Idaho and Kansas than Clinton did from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Replicated across the country, Obama’s superior understanding of the delegate allocation rules explains how he won. (If you had told any politically savvy observer four years ago that Clinton would win New York, California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, and still lose the nomination, you would have been asked what you were smoking.)

So, what’s the lesson for this year’s Republican contest?

First, the calendar. Although February offers little encouragement to Newt Gingrich, March holds promise with its turn to the South, Gingrich’s strongest region. (Voters in seven Southern states go to the polls in March.) Ron Paul’s campaign, meanwhile, is paying special attention to February’s caucus states, where intensity matters more than in primary states. (It takes real conviction to sit through hours of speech-making and ballot-counting, as opposed to popping in for 10 minutes to vote.) If Paul is interested in having an impact at the convention, winning a plurality of delegates in a few states could matter a great deal.

Second, the winner-take-all approach has largely been abandoned. What we have instead is a patchwork of rules: Most states allocate most of their delegates by congressional district; some have the top two finishers split those delegates; some give them all to the district winner, but only if he gets 50 percent or more; some use winner-take-all for each district.

Convention Battles

The key: A candidate can pick up a fair share of delegates in many states by targeting his campaign on a district-by-district basis. This also means that, statistically at least, it will be harder for Mitt Romney to wrap up the nomination early.

Finally, the rules open the door to a contentious convention, if not a contested one.

Why? Because if there’s sentiment for a fight over a platform plank, or whether convention rules outlaw winner-take-all voting, all the dissidents need is 25 percent of the votes in the respective committees -- a mark the combined anti-Romney forces might well achieve. Further, if Gingrich wants his name put in nomination, all he needs is a plurality of delegates -- not a majority -- in five states. He already has that plurality in South Carolina and may yet pick up pluralities in four more states along the way.

If those adamantly opposed to Romney wind up with this kind of strength, it means they will have the power to start rules fights or demand the gold standard be included in the platform. They may be able to offer their own vice-presidential nominee or throw the timing of important speeches into chaos.

I may be getting ahead of myself; the convention isn’t until August. Maybe it’s better to focus on the debate in Arizona in three weeks. I wonder how long it will take for Gingrich to attack the moderator?

(Jeff Greenfield, who has covered politics for ABC, CBS and CNN, is the host of “Need to Know” on PBS and the author of “Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

To contact the writer of this article: Jeff Greenfield at hjeph@aol.com.

To contact the editor of this article: Michael Newman at +1-202-654-7385 or mnewman43@bloomberg.net.