It won't be like last time: 2024 Michigan GOP presidential primary explained

Time was, a voter could rely on Michigan's presidential primaries being pretty cut and dried: Both major parties, same date, pick your ballot, vote.

And that was only three years ago.

Next year, however, it's going to be more complicated, especially for Republican voters, who are going to see Michigan's role in the national nomination evolve into a two-step primary/convention process spaced out over at least five days.

We're going to explain how that process will work below. But first, it's important to know a few things. First, we're only talking about Michigan's part in deciding the major party nominees for president, not those for other offices like U.S. senator or congressperson, with those primaries still on the first Tuesday in August.

Second, this is happening courtesy of the Democratic National Committee, and President Joe Biden, who decided to revamp a calendar they believed gave too much sway to Iowa and New Hampshire, which traditionally have gone first. In doing so, they (and ultimately the state Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer) moved Michigan's primary up to the fourth Tuesday in February, which in next year's case is Feb. 27.

Sweet! Michigan goes fourth nationally and a week before the slew of Super Tuesday states. (And that doesn't count the fact that New Hampshire is violating new Democratic rules that moved it back in the calendar and won't see Biden campaigning there as a consequence). So it could, theoretically, give the state a lot more clout politically, especially if Democrats keep the same calendar in the future.

But that day violates the Republican National Committee's (RNC) rules — still very much in effect — that say the only presidential contests before the beginning of March are supposed to be those in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. And it wasn't going to change them just to please a Democratic president or members of his party who have long argued that Iowa and New Hampshire were not representative enough of the rest of the country to give them such prominence.

So Michigan Republicans have spent months working with the RNC to 1) keep all their delegates to the national nominating convention in Milwaukee next summer, many of which they would lose by simply awarding those delegates to whomever wins the primary Feb. 27, and 2) have that Feb. 27 public primary count for something.

And they did, but it does require some explanation. Here it is, courtesy of the RNC and one of its Michigan members, National Committeeman Dr. Rob Steele.

The primary will look like any other but ultimately decide only a portion of delegates

This requires a little explanation up front. If you're new to the world of presidential nominating contests, they are essentially about deciding how many delegates a candidate will receive from a given state to cast their votes for him or her at the national nominating conventions held each presidential election year during the summer.

Since we're talking about Republicans here, they have 2,470 delegates to be selected nationally, spread across the states, with a candidate needing 1,236 to become the nominee. (This comes from the Green Papers, an online site that methodically tracks the ins and outs of the nominating and voting process; Democrats, by the way, have 4,541 delegates, with 2,271 needed to nominate.)

Michigan Republicans will, barring some change, award 55 delegates in all. And, if all goes according to plan, they shouldn't lose a single delegate either, even with a portion being awarded in proportion to the results of a primary held before March.

Just like any other recent primary year, registered voters in Michigan wanting to vote for a presidential candidate from the Republican or Democratic field in 2024 will get that party's ballot and do so (either through early voting, requesting and returning an absentee ballot, or in person at their polling places on primary day, you can check out all of those options here or by communicating with your local clerk).

But not all of the Republican's 55 delegates will be awarded according to that popular vote. Instead, 16 so-called at-large delegates (meaning they're not being doled out to the candidates according to congressional districts, which will come into play later) will be awarded.

And here's how.

Any Republican candidate who gets 12.5% of the primary popular vote gets two delegates, with an additional delegate for each additional 6.25%. There is no winner-take-all, though any remaining delegates once the vote is split up go to whoever was the overall winner.

So, say, candidate X gets 40% of the Republican primary vote, candidate Y gets 30%, candidate Z gets 20% and the remaining 10% is split between two other candidates, neither of whom reaches the threshold to get any delegates. In this example, X initially gets 6 delegates, Y gets 4 and Z gets 3. That leaves three unallocated that also go to X as the plurality winner, leaving him or her with 9.

This appears to be key, however: Formally, the results of the Feb. 27 Republican primary are what the RNC calls "non-binding," meaning they don't count toward anything — at least not as of Feb. 27. Instead, to get around that March rule, the allocation of those 16 delegates won't officially take place until after March 1, when the state committee will meet — at the same time they meet to certify the results from part two of this process (which we're about to get to) — and adopt a resolution spelling out that primary allocation formula.

Then comes the state nominating convention

For Michigan Democrats, that's about it — their primary vote will sort out which candidates get 117 of their 140 delegates, with the rest being unpledged delegates we used to refer to as "super-delegates." (In the primary, Democratic presidential candidates need at least 15% of the primary vote to receive any delegates, 40 of whom are awarded statewide and the rest split according to the winners in Michigan's 13 congressional districts.)

Republican candidates, however, have to go through another step in the process: a state convention to be held on Saturday, March 2.

There — presumably at one as-yet-unnamed site, though it could be at several if the state Republican Party were to decide otherwise — the remaining 39 delegates are to be awarded according to a vote of convention participants (who are also called delegates but that's confusing). Those participants will be selected in each of the state's 13 congressional districts. (Those convention participants will be selected at county GOP meetings across the state on Feb. 15.)

In essence, the nominating convention will consist of 13 separate conventions, one for each congressional district, with the presidential candidates (or perhaps their surrogates) going around and campaigning before each group takes a vote. Each gets three delegates to award, adding up to 39 in all.

If a candidate gets a majority of the congressional district participants' votes, he or she gets all three delegates. If no one gets a majority, then the candidate with the highest tally gets two and whoever comes in next gets one.

In the end, said Steele, Michigan Republicans were able to work out an arrangement that not only avoids a penalty — they would have lost all but 12 delegates had they simply awarded them according to the outcome of the Feb. 27 primary — it also means that Michigan takes on additional significance.

"For the Republican candidates Michigan becomes more important than usual," he said. "We are the first state after the usual early four and a week prior to Super Tuesday. This allows those that do well in Michigan to campaign for a week on their strength as a top-tier candidate and suggest (to) Super Tuesday voters forget about those finishing lower."

Of course, it is a process that also gives additional weight to the decision made by party insiders or others who win the right to be participants at that state convention, rather than it being more purely an outcome of the public primary vote itself. But it's also true that, since Democrats made the decision on their own to change the calendar — and Republicans were never likely to alienate Iowa and New Hampshire by simply agreeing to that — they didn't give the GOP much of a choice.

Contact Todd Spangler at Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler. Editor's note: An example of a potential primary breakdown and how delegates would be split has been changed from the original version.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Here's how 2024 Michigan GOP presidential primary will work