How an Obscure Alabama Election Law Can Predict the GOP Presidential Primaries


Last week, New Hampshire's filing period for their First in the Nation Presidential Primary opened to much fanfare. Significantly less attention was paid to close of filing for the Alabama Presidential Primary. Every state's filing requirements are different, and the relative complexity of Alabama's makes it an excellent test of a presidential campaign’s ability to organize on the ground.

In New Hampshire, all someone has to do to qualify for the ballot is meet eligibility requirements for President and pay a $1,000 fee (making nominating someone for President in New Hampshire this year’s hot birthday gag-gift). Alabama's rules are nowhere near as simple. If you're really interested in the full rules they can be found here, but the basic rules are that in addition to paying a $10,000 fee to appear on the ballot, each candidate also needs to submit a list of delegates who will appear on the ballot alongside them, under these criteria:

  • 3 Delegates each for the 7 Congressional Districts, 21 Total

  • 26 At Large Delegates

These delegates are then assigned proportionally to any candidates receiving over 20% of the vote. The congressional delegates are divided up based on how the candidates do in each district and the at-large delegates are divided based on how the candidates do statewide. On top of that, three party leaders (the Alabama Republican National Committeeman, Committeewoman, and the State Party Chair) also serve as unpledged delegates, bringing the total for the State up to 50.

So what does this actually mean to the campaigns? It's a test of their ability to organize on the ground. They have to be able to identify 47 supporters (21 of them spread out evenly across the state's seven congressional districts) who are willing to pay the $150 fee and attend the GOP Convention in July. That's not a small ask - it requires a statewide campaign capable of identifying and recruiting potential delegates. That makes it a pretty good test of the campaigns' relative strengths.

How'd they do?

The candidates fall pretty neatly into three tiers, which loosely mirror current polling in the race.

  • Tier 1: Consists of Carson, Cruz, Rubio, Trump, and Paul. With the exception of Paul (who inherited a grassroots machine from his father's campaign), these are the candidates who have been consistently leading in the polls over the last month and they've apparently been able to translate that support into an actual campaign organization.

  • Tier 2: Consists of Bush, Kasich, Santorum, and Fiorina. These campaigns are struggling. They clearly put effort into trying to recruit delegates, but failed to fill an entire slate.

  • Tier 3: Consists of Huckabee, Christie, Gilmore, Graham, Jindal, and Pataki. These campaigns aren't trying. They have made little to no efforts to organize in Alabama.

The Tier 3 candidates are gambling on something dramatic happening before Super Tuesday that completely changes the race. Delegates are bound until the RNC Convention OR until the candidate they are pledged to drops out. So the theory for these candidates is that they dramatically beat expectations in some combination of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada before going on to do well in Alabama (even though they will receive no delegates) so that when the candidates who do win delegates drop out they're the logical choice for them to migrate to. If (when) they don't take off in those first four races, these candidates will have to drop out because they will lack the organizations in the Super Tuesday states that would allow them to continue. The Tier 2 candidates face a different dilemma. They clearly have some campaign organization working for them, but it's either not enough or inefficient. The problem is that those organizations still cost resources to maintain. This is what ultimately sunk Scott Walker. With middling polling and fundraising numbers and feeble showings on Super Tuesday, their campaigns are likely to peter out as donors drift away. The Tier 1 candidates have to now be considered the frontrunners. Leading in the polls, they've clearly begun to build ground organizations that are activating their supporters. There is still plenty of time for them to stumble, but if they make it to Super Tuesday, they will begin to rack up delegates even if they're no longer leading in the polls. If they can successfully convince the media to pay attention to the delegate race instead of just the election top-lines, they can make a case for sticking around even in the face of dropping poll numbers - because unlike the Democratic Party, the Republican Party has many fewer unpledged "Super Delegates" to put a late breaking frontrunner over the top before the convention.