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National Politics|By Amy Walter, January 7, 2016

One of the biggest “known unknowns” of the GOP primary is whether Donald Trump will be able to translate his raucous rally goers into actual votes come election time. There has been rampant speculation about whether those who are the most supportive of the blustery billionaire are 1) registered to vote; 2) registered as Republicans; and/or 3) willing to show up and vote.

While I was up in New Hampshire this past week, Trump detractors were quick to tell me how many Massachusetts license plates they saw in the parking lots at Trump rallies. In a recent dispatch from Iowa, the New York Times reports that while Trump’s backers “say they are confident that” they will bring new, previously disaffected voters out to caucus in February, “state party records indicate only modest gains in the numbers of registered Republicans over recent months, a pattern little different from that in past election years.” The Upshot’s Nate Cohn found that Trump’s strongest voters are “self-identified Republicans who nonetheless are registered as Democrats.” He also found that those who are most likely to support Trump are also the least likely to turn out and vote.

Moreover, no one really knows for sure if the Trump campaign organization is actually actively registering or targeting these supportive potential voters.

In other words, there’s plenty of evidence that those who are most likely to support Trump are either unable or unwilling to get to a polling booth or caucus site.

However, as seen in this chart, in many of the early states a voter doesn’t need to be registered as a Republican to vote in that state’s primary or participate in the caucus. In the case of Iowa, one can register with the party at the time of the vote.

In the 38 states and territories that vote before April 1st, less than half (seventeen) are restricted to only those who are registered as Republican. Some, like New Hampshire and Massachusetts allow a combination of those who are registered Republican and those who are unaffiliated or independent, to participate. Some states, like Virginia, have so called “loyalty pledges” which require a voter to sign a statement affirming they are a Republican (there is no party registration in Virginia). While there is no enforcement mechanism to these pledges, they can serve to intimidate or dissuade non-party regulars from participation.

Even so, early states that are “open” to any voter (i.e, Democrats) include some of the deep red states where Trump has strong support like Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas. There’s recent evidence that getting non-traditional Republicans to vote in southern states can work. Witness GOP Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran who owes his 2014 run-off win to African-American and Democratic voters.

More than 64 percent of all delegates are selected between February 1 and March 31. Of those, just 34 percent (542) are chosen in “closed” primaries where only GOP registered voters can participate. Meanwhile, almost half of total delegates are chosen in states that are open to all registered voters. 

Primary/Caucus Type Total Number of Delegates Btwn 2/1- 3/31
Mixed/Loyalty Pledge252
It is only later in the primary calendar where the process becomes more prohibitive. Northeastern states that vote on April 26 - Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania - are restricted to those who are registered Republican. More significantly, Trump’s home state of New York only allows registered Republicans to vote in its April 19 primary. The New York Times analysis found that upstate New York, which is heavily white and blue collar, was one of Trump’s strongest bastions of support.

Of those 876 delegates available between April 1 and June 7, almost 75 percent (646) are awarded through closed a closed primary.

Primary/Caucus Type Total Number of Delegates Btwn 4/1-6/7
Ultimately, we don’t know if Trump’s campaign is capable of the level of organization needed to identify, register and turn-out his base of non-traditional GOP voters. What we do know, however, is that his Democratic and/or unaffiliated supporters can vote in more primaries/caucuses than not. Moreover, the rules are the least restrictive early on the process, which can allow Trump to build up momentum as well as his delegate haul. Where his strategy runs into trouble is in April when the primary process gets more restrictive.

Cook Political Report intern Laura Oxford contributed to this report.