How the 2016 Republican Primaries Worked

New rules shortening the process made all the difference

2016 Republican Presidential Candidates Debate In Houston, Texas
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The 2016 presidential election was notable for many reasons, not the least of which was the outcome. Major changes to the Republican primary system made in the wake of the 2012 election were intended to speed up the candidate-selection process. But it didn't quite work out that way.

What Happened in 2012

Party rules put in place before the 2012 presidential election lengthened the amount of time it took the eventual nominee to secure the 1,144 delegates necessary for the nomination.

The top three candidates, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, were locked in a tight race until the very end, when Utah held the last of the primaries in the nation on June 26. The party convention was held a month later in Tampa, Florida.

That November, Romney lost by a wide margin to President Barack Obama, giving Obama a second term in the White House. Two years later, Republican Party leaders met to draft rules for the 2016 primaries. Their chief concern was avoiding another drawn-out primary battle that would force the eventual nominee to spend too much time and money defending himself from attacks by members of his own party. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus put it this way in 2014:

"We have been saying for months that we were no longer going to sit around and allow ourselves to slice and dice for six months, participate in a circus of debates, that we were going to take hold once again of our responsibility at the Republican National Committee because we are the custodians of the nomination process," he said.

The 2016 Primaries

Per tradition, Iowa Republicans voted first; they caucused on Feb. 1, 2016, and gave Texas Sen. Ted Cruz a slim win over Donald Trump, 28 percent to 24 percent. A little over a week later, New Hampshire's GOP held the nation's first primary on Feb. 9. Trump won a commanding 35 percent of the vote.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who would dog Trump throughout the campaign, took second place with 19 percent of the vote.

South Carolina and Nevada voted later that month, and Trump won both states. But Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz also did well. The ground was set for a fast, brutal primary fight leading up to the July 18 beginning of the national convention. 

Because Iowa and New Hampshire guard their first-in-the-nation status so dearly, the GOP rules made sure that any states that tried to vote earlier than these would be punished by losing delegates at the national convention. Victories in these early states would also give an early boost to the winners.

Once March began, the pace quickened. States holding their primaries between March 1 and March 14 had to award their delegates on a proportional basis, meaning that no one candidate could likely win the nomination before late-voting states held their primaries. States voting on March 15, 2016, or later could award their delegates on a winner-take-all basis, meaning candidates will likely pay more attention to them. 

As the weeks wore on, the contest came down to Trump and Cruz, with Kasich a distant if vocal third. By the time the Indiana Republican primary took place on May 3, it was apparent that Trump would win the nomination after Cruz came in second in that contest and subsequently dropped out of the race.

Trump officially crossed the delegate threshold of 1,237 when he won the North Dakota primary on May 26.

Aftermath

Donald Trump went on to win the presidential election that November, and the Republican Party maintained its control of both houses of Congress. Yet even before the election, some party leaders were already talking about changes to the 2020 primary system. Among them was a proposal to allow only registered Republicans a vote. Trump won primaries in both South Carolina and Nevada in part because both states permitted independents to vote. As of August 2017, the GOP hasn't yet implemented these reforms. 

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Murse, Tom. "How the 2016 Republican Primaries Worked." ThoughtCo, Oct. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/2016-republican-primaries-3367546. Murse, Tom. (2017, October 2). How the 2016 Republican Primaries Worked. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/2016-republican-primaries-3367546 Murse, Tom. "How the 2016 Republican Primaries Worked." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/2016-republican-primaries-3367546 (accessed January 23, 2018).