In Michigan, Winner Can Lose the Delegate Race

Imagine this scenario: Polls have closed in Michigan, and Rick Santorum has pulled off a narrow upset-but Mitt Romney has won a majority of the state's 30 delegates.

Who gives the victory speech?

That result could unfold on Tuesday. Thanks to the Republican Party's quirky delegate distribution rules, it is possible for one candidate to win the statewide vote in Michigan while another candidate wins more delegates.

That's because Michigan will award most of its delegates geographically according to the vote in each of its newly drawn 14 congressional districts.

Here's how the allocation works:

  • 30 total delegates
  • Two delegates awarded to the winner of each congressional district, for a total of 28
  • Two delegates split proportionally among candidates who receive at least 15 percent of the statewide vote. In all likelihood, the top two finishers will split these two.

In other words, a victory in the statewide popular vote is valued at less than the value of just one county.

Not all "proportional" states are created equal, and some of them won't be too proportional in the end. In South Carolina, which awarded delegates similarly to Michigan, Newt Gingrich won 40 percent of the statewide vote and took home far more than 40 percent of its delegates, winning 23 out of 25 total. Nearly every state awards delegates based on congressional-district votes, in one way or another.

Michigan could end in a delegate landslide, or its 30 delegates could be split about evenly among the top two finishers.

If polling proves correct and Romney wins narrowly statewide, while narrowly carrying every congressional district, he'll win 29 of the 30 delegates. But if Romney runs up his vote total in a few congressional districts, winning only five of the 14, he'll win only 11 delegates, likely leaving 16 for the second-place finisher.

The same holds true for Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul-it all depends on how votes spread across the state.

Counting Arizona's 29 delegates, 59 delegates will be awarded on Tuesday. With 1,144 needed to win the presidential nomination, the current ABC News delegate estimate has Romney (109) leading Santorum (72), Gingrich (30), and Ron Paul (18).

Realistically, no candidate will be able to reach 1, 144 before May.