The Pennsylvania primary: rules, incentives and implications

Image credit:

Image credit:

Nicholas Pyeatt | assistant professor of political science at Penn State Altoona


What is it?
On Tuesday, April 26, Pennsylvania’s voters will go to the polls to vote for Democratic and Republican nominees for president and a variety of other offices. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voters can look up their polling place online.

Nicholas Pyeatt

Nicholas Pyeatt

Who can participate?
All registered voters affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties are eligible to vote.

What is at stake?
The biggest prize for both parties is the presidential race.

On the Democratic side, there are 210 delegates available (with 2,383 needed for a convention majority). The number of delegates actually selected on Tuesday will be lower than that, however, as 21 delegates are superdelegates such as Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey. Of the remaining 189 delegates, 127 will be allocated proportionally by congressional district with a minimum of 15 percent of the vote needed to receive delegates. Another 62 delegates will be selected by the state committee based on the results of the statewide primary vote.

On the Republican side, there are 71 delegates available (with 1,237 needed for a convention majority). They will be allocated with 14 at-large, 54 by congressional district and 3 reserved for the RNC. The at-large delegates will be selected at the state committee meeting on May 21, based on the statewide vote. The congressional district delegates will be elected on the primary ballot as officially unbound. This last point is very important as it means that Pennsylvania will have a lot of delegates at the convention that could conceivably back any candidate.

Below the presidential level, there are a lot of interesting races as well. On the Democratic side, there is a competitive Senate race with three main candidates involved in a spirited race to face incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R) in the fall. The Democrats also have a race to replace outgoing Attorney General Kathleen Kane. On the Republican side, there is a two-way competition for Attorney General.

Video credit: WPSU


Locally, there is congressional competition as well. While the State College area — which is in the fifth district (most of north and central Pennsylvania) — does not have a contested primary, Congressman Bill Shuster from the ninth congressional district (much of south and central Pennsylvania) has a spirited challenge from Art Halvorson.

What should I be watching for on Election Day?
There are a lot of stories to go around in this primary but here are a few that I will be watching:

Clinton and Expectations: While Pennsylvania has not had nearly the polling that some of the early states received, Hillary Clinton has led in all or effectively all of them. This reflects strength on her side, but there is a risk. If she wins the state but in a much narrower fashion than expected, say less than 10 points, it will be easy for the Bernie Sanders campaign to spin the result as a win.

And why not? She has consistently polled ahead all year (with some polls showing margins over 25 points) and the state’s demographics are generally favorable to her (an older and more diverse electorate), so for Sanders a narrow loss could be almost as good as a win.

Trump and Momentum: After a bad couple of weeks, Donald Trump rebounded in New York but needs Pennsylvania and New Jersey not only to win delegates but also to avoid the perception that he is losing the nomination. While the campaign period prior to New York was likely to be a hard period for Trump regardless, he has suffered from a number of unforced errors of late, costing him delegates in Colorado, South Carolina, Wyoming as well as some of his aura of inevitability. He needs to win decisively to right the ship, so to speak, and to push his delegate lead as close to a majority as possible.

Barring a major shift, he is looking unlikely to win a delegate majority outright, so he will need as many delegates as possible at the convention, and Pennsylvania can help somewhat. While he may only win a dozen or so pledged delegates on election night, the bigger the margin, the more difficult it will be for the unpledged delegates from Pennsylvania to back Cruz or some surprise candidate at the convention.

The Wolf Effect: While I will definitely be looking at the presidential results, in many ways the down ballot races are more interesting. One of the biggest ones is for the U.S. Senate where there are three Democrats battling to take on one-term Sen. Pat Toomey (R).

Video credit: WPSU


Toomey is widely seen as vulnerable, running for re-election in a state with roughly a million-registrant Democratic advantage and that has gone for Democratic presidential candidates in each of the last six elections. Early on, most election watchers would have said that the candidate from 2010, former Rep. Joe Sestak, was the front runner. Sestak made his intention to challenge Toomey again very clear since 2010, and his narrow loss that year (less than 75,000 votes) in a very bad Democratic year reflects his strength as a candidate.

That said, Sestak has not made friends in the Democratic establishment and his principal opponent — Gov. Wolf’s chief of staff, Katie McGinty — has received strong support from the governor and much of the Democratic establishment (such as President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former Gov. Ed Rendell, and Sen. Bob Casey). Primary elections are sometimes driven by such endorsements, but most of the polling shows Sestak with a lead. Do big endorsements push a less well-known candidate over the top or does the repeat candidate get the nod despite his poor relationship with the party?

Video credit: WPSU


The Tea Party and Congress: Compared to previous elections, this has so far been a fairly quiet year for the Tea Party insurgency in the Republican Party. While there have been some notable challenges (Texas Rep. Kevin Brady being the most interesting so far), the incumbents have generally gone on to fairly easy victories due to good planning and lots of fundraising.

In central Pennsylvania, one of these insurgent candidates is challenging incumbent Rep. Bill Shuster. Rep. Shuster is a reliably conservative member of Congress, but his challenger is criticizing him for his role in the “Washington Establishment” as well as his ties to a lobbyist with business before his committee. In most elections, Shuster would be seen as having an overwhelming advantage, but this ethical issue plus Halvorson’s name recognition from his previous run might make this a closer race.

All in all, it should be an entertaining election to watch.

What is the Pennsylvania primary’s role in the presidential nomination process?

Photo credit: Penn State

Photo credit: Penn State

Robert Speel | Associate Professor of Political Science at Penn State Behrend


Because this will be the first time since 1980 that Pennsylvania’s Republican presidential primary will matter, many have noticed the unusual way in which Pennsylvania Republican voters choose delegates to the national convention.

Robert Speel

Robert Speel

Sending officially uncommitted delegates to the national convention wasn’t a significant issue with Pennsylvania’s Republican primary in recent decades, simply because by the time Pennsylvanians voted ever since 1984, the Republican presidential nomination was largely uncontested.

This month will also be only the second time that Pennsylvania’s Democratic presidential primary has been seriously contested since 1984. The previous exception was in 2008, when candidates and political observers from around the country focused on a six-week period when no other state held a primary or caucus before the contested Pennsylvania primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Democratic presidential nominations

Image credit: Flickr/DonkeyHotey

Image credit: Flickr/DonkeyHotey

Democratic presidential primaries work roughly the same way in every state. Delegates to the national convention are chosen for each candidate proportional to the candidate’s share of the statewide vote or the vote in a congressional district, as long as the candidate receives at least 15 percent of the vote. Any candidate with under 15 percent of the vote receives no delegates.

For example, Pennsylvania will distribute 62 delegates on April 26 to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders based on their share of the statewide vote; 127 more delegates are divided between the state’s 18 congressional districts, and those delegates will be distributed based on each candidate’s share of the vote in each district.

Democratic caucus states follow more complicated rules that can involve local precinct meetings and district, county and state conventions, but all involve a proportional selection rule, where candidates get awarded delegates based on the candidate’s share of the vote, if it is at least 15 percent.

In addition, Democrats allow many elected officials to serve as unpledged “superdelegates” to the national convention, including all current Democratic members of Congress, all current Democratic governors and all current and former Democratic presidents and vice presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Al Gore, President Obama, Vice President Biden and Bill Clinton, who will be able to vote for his wife. Pennsylvania superdelegates will include Governor Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey.

Democrats have another delegate selection rule, too, in which each state’s pledged delegates must be half female, half male.

Republican presidential nominations

Image credit: Flickr/DonkeyHotey

Image credit: Flickr/DonkeyHotey

Republicans allow states a wide variation in how delegates are chosen to the national convention. The only restriction is that states who hold presidential preference votes must connect voter preferences to the delegate selection process in some way.

Prior to this year, many Republican caucus states would hold presidential preference votes, but then choose convention delegates in a separate process. This allowed presidential candidate Ron Paul in 2012 to gain the most delegates from three states in which voters had cast the most votes for Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum.

Because of this year’s new Republican party rules requiring states to connect voter preferences for president to the delegate selection process, three caucus states — Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota — actually abolished any Republican vote for president and have instead held state conventions to choose delegates, who will mostly be supporting Ted Cruz at the July convention in Cleveland.

In 1980 — Pennsylvania’s last Republican presidential primary that mattered — candidate Ronald Reagan was leading the delegate count when Pennsylvanians voted on April 22, but George H.W. Bush was still contesting the nomination. Bush beat Reagan in Pennsylvania, one of only six states he won that year. Pennsylvania’s Republican primary almost mattered in 2012, but home state candidate Rick Santorum dropped out of the race two weeks before Pennsylvanians voted, essentially leaving Mitt Romney without serious opposition for the presidential nomination.

Some Republican presidential primary states allocate delegates similar to the Democratic model with each candidate getting a share of delegates roughly equal to the share of votes a candidate wins statewide or in a congressional district. Many other Republican states use a winner-take all system for delegates, where a Republican candidate who finishes first statewide wins all of the state’s delegates (Ohio, Florida), or the winner of each congressional district wins three delegates per district won (California).

Unpledged delegates

But in two states — Illinois and Pennsylvania — Republican voters elect most delegates directly.  In those two states, a small number of convention delegates (17 in Pennsylvania) are awarded to whichever presidential candidate gets the most votes statewide. Then, in each state, voters elect three delegate candidates directly from each of 18 congressional districts (totaling 54). The delegate candidates do not necessarily support whoever won that district’s vote for president.

In Illinois, delegate candidate names on the ballot are listed next to the presidential candidate the potential delegates support, so Donald Trump supporters, for example, could vote for delegate candidates who are pledged to Trump, and Ted Cruz supporters could vote for delegate candidates pledged to Cruz.

But in Pennsylvania, the district delegate candidates have no such pledges listed on the ballot, and voters will usually have no idea which presidential candidates the delegate candidates support. Pennsylvania has the only Republican presidential primary structured in such a way, potentially making the 54 delegates from Pennsylvania the largest bloc of officially unpledged delegates at the July national convention.

In such a situation when Republican voters don’t know which presidential candidate the delegates might support, voters often use cues such as name recognition or even the perceived ethnicity of a last name in order to decide how to vote for delegates.

Photo credit: Penn State

Photo credit: Penn State

Is Pennsylvania late to the game?

Finally, some may wonder why Pennsylvania holds such a late primary, a month or two after most other states have voted, and in most years, after both parties’ presidential nomination processes are essentially over.

A majority of states, including New York, Florida and Massachusetts, hold separate primary elections for president and for non-presidential offices, giving those states at least three elections in every presidential election year.

Pennsylvania legislators have not wanted to do so, since more elections would cost more money, create more work for election officials and cause more responsibilities for voters. Simultaneously, Pennsylvania legislators have been reluctant to move the state presidential primary earlier, since that would require signature gathering for non-presidential offices to take place during the previous year’s holiday season.

Given that the Pennsylvania primary still matters in both parties’ nomination processes this year, for the first time since 1980, there likely will not be a strong incentive to move the primary date to earlier in the season before the next round of presidential primaries begin.

Unilateral presidential power in an age of polarized politics

President Barack Obama looks over paperwork between meetings in the Oval Office. (Photo credit/Pete Souza, Official White House photo)

President Barack Obama looks over paperwork between meetings in the Oval Office. (Photo credit/Pete Souza, official White House photo)

Mark Major | Associate Director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy


Presidential power, especially their unilateral authority, has been a fierce point of contention in the Obama era. Recently, 43 senators, all Republican, filed a friend-of-the-court brief challenging President Obama’s, as they put it, “extra-constitutional assertion of a unilateral executive power” over immigration policy. The public, and many in the press, assume that the controversy centers on an executive order. This is incorrect.

Mark Major

Mark Major

In the case of President Obama’s immigration reform, it deals with “prosecutorial discretion.” Regardless of the term, unilateral executive powers are a compelling, and long overdue, topic for national discussion. Despite this high level of attention to President Obama’s unilateral actions on immigration, health care and gun reform, we have little understanding of this unique presidential power.

It is important to place the current controversy over immigration reform in a larger context of unilateral executive powers. Executive orders, signing statements, proclamations, national security directives and memorandum are all tools that presidents use to shape and influence the policymaking process. Unilateral powers are defined as an array of policies that presidents design without — and sometimes over the objections of — Congress or the courts.

The Louisiana Purchase, Peace Corps, racially integrating the military and many civil rights initiatives are all policies derived from direct presidential actions. These directives seemingly derive their authority from the Constitution or congressional statutes. While unilateral powers have been a unique part of the executive since the founding, their use has substantially increased in the era of the modern presidency. As presidential scholar William G. Howell, author of “Power without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action,” notes, the modern presidency is defined by its tendency and capacity to go it alone.

In fact, President Obama recently issued a presidential memorandum creating a White House task force on curing cancer. (This did not receive much news coverage or outcry because it is difficult for the opposition to claim that wanting to cure cancer circumvents the Constitution.) However, the Constitution is silent on presidents legislating and acting on their own. While it is not constitutionally mandated, one could argue that executive unilateral powers are an acceptable practice because it is an implied constitutional power, similar to judicial review for the federal courts.

To date, President Obama has issued 228 orders while in office. While he still has eight months left in office, this is less than his two immediate predecessors, Presidents Clinton and Bush, who issued 364 and 291 executive orders, respectively. Since George Washington, presidents have issued more than 15,000 executive orders. These range from the mundane, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson ordering the American flag to be flown half-mast to honor the death of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to the controversial, like President Obama’s recent use of this power to curb gun violence.

Controversial or not, many executive orders have policy implications. For example, President Obama, through Executive Order 13513, prohibited all federal employees and contractors from texting while driving.

One can only imagine what today’s presidential candidates would say during the time of either Roosevelt administrations. Teddy Roosevelt ramped up the use of executive orders during a period of the presidency taking a more active and leading role in the political system. His 1,081 executive orders far outnumbered the previous record holder, President Grant, at 217. Teddy’s distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, still holds the record for most executive orders issued by a president, however, at a total of 3,721.

The current uproar over the executive unilateral powers is nothing new. Both parties do not have a monopoly on fidelity to the Constitution. The degree of concern over the constitutional process is often dependent on each party’s position of power. In other words, where they currently stand depends on where they are sitting. While Republican presidential candidates claim to hold everything sacred in the Constitution, they, and their congressional allies that held a Republican majority in Congress, were pretty ambivalent about the robust use of unilateral powers during the Bush administration. Ultimately, the high rhetoric masks the crass partisanship.

This speaks to the importance of Congress, our first branch of government. Presidents are more interested in passing legislation because it is “stickier” compared to executive unilateral powers. Laws are more difficult to overturn; they have more staying power due to the American system of separation of powers.

For example, if the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) was merely the product of an executive order, then the next Republican to take the Oval Office would simply issue an executive order repealing it. Instead, presidents solidify their legacy in large part through the legislation they shepherd through Congress like FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society, Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s tax cuts, etc.

However, as President Obama has stated numerous times, when Congress refuses to act, presidents sometimes will. In an age of both parties refusing to acknowledge the existence of each other, presidents will keep acting alone. Until Congress tempers polarization and reengages in the legislative process — seemingly the primary reason why they were elected in the first place — presidents will continue to rely on their informal unilateral powers to get something done.

Mark Major is the associate director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and a senior lecturer in the department of political science at Penn State. He is the author of “The Unilateral Presidency and the News Media: The Politics of Framing Executive Power.”

Skip to toolbar