Why Are Pennsylvania's GOP Delegates Unbound? The State's Strange Primary System Could Decide The Nomination

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Republicans will hold their presidential primary, but thanks to a quirk in the state’s delegate rules, the outcome of the vote won’t matter very much. Fifty-four of Pennsylvania’s 71 delegates are unbound, which means they can vote for whichever candidate they want at national convention, regardless of how the state votes in the primary. This is a pretty unusual system, and it begs the question: Why are Pennsylvania’s delegates unbound?

The simple answer is this: Pennsylvania’s delegates are unbound because the Pennsylvania Republican Party wants them to be unbound. Rule 8.4 of the state party’s bylaws say that Pennsylvania’s congressional district delegates “shall not be officially committed to any particular candidate on the ballot.” Because they don’t run as open supporters of one candidate or another, they are allowed to be completely unbound at the national convention, per the national party's rules.

Nowadays, Pennsylvania’s system is anomalous: As of 2016, only a few states have unbound delegates, and none have as many as Pennsylvania. However, this wasn’t always the case. Until the 1970s, presidential nominees were chosen in large part not by voters, but by party insiders in smoke-filled rooms, which are basically the functional equivalent of unbound delegates. For example, in 1940, only about 300 of the GOP’s 1,000 delegates were bound when the convention began. Back then, the party decided, not the people.

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images News/Getty Images

This changed in the 1970s, when both parties instituted reforms to make their nominating processes more democratic. And in fact, these changes are ongoing: In 2016, the RNC enacted rule changes that made it even harder for states to send unbound delegates to the national convention. But the national party didn’t make it outright impossible, and Pennsylvania was one of the few states, along with North Dakota, that continued to not bind its delegates in 2016.

In at least one instance, Pennsylvania’s strange delegate system became the focal point of a serious nomination battle. In 1976, Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination, and the delegate math was extremely close when the convention approached. In an attempt to win over Pennsylvania’s unbound delegates and put him over the edge, Reagan preemptively announced that he’d pick Richard Schweiker, one of Pennsylvania’s senators, as his vice president if the party gave him the nomination.

L.E. BASKOW/AFP/Getty Images

The plan backfired, however. Schweiker was a very moderate Republican, and Reagan’s decision to put him on the ticket infuriated conservatives in the party, so much so that some Reagan delegates switched their support to Ford. In the end, Ford defeated Reagan by a little over 100 delegates.

It’s far too soon to say what Pennsylvania’s 54 unbound delegates will do at the national convention. But if Donald Trump finds himself a hair short of a delegate majority when the convention begins, you can bet him and his operatives will be spending a lot of time huddled in corners with members of the Pennsylvania delegation.