Politics & Policy

Why Trump’s Complaints about ‘Stolen’ Delegates Don’t Hold Water

(Scott Olson/Getty)

Most people, even those who follow politics closely, don’t pay much attention to how convention delegates are selected. And in most cycles, the process doesn’t matter, because one candidate secures enough delegates to wrap up the nomination before the party holds its convention: The question of who goes to the convention and does the voting is almost entirely symbolic, consequential only to disputes about platforms and obscure rules.

This cycle, of course, is not like most cycles: The delegates are likely to pick the nominee, and they may not care that Donald Trump finishes with the most votes, the most delegates, and the most state wins if he doesn’t secure the 1,237 delegates needed to win on a first ballot. If that happens, the conventional wisdom says that a flood of newly unbound delegates will desert Trump, throwing the nomination to Ted Cruz.

Cruz’s campaign, recognizing that he has a sudden advantage as the most viable, “establishment”-friendly alternative to Trump — savor the irony of those words — is now gaming GOP conventions in states that Trump won, such as Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, and Louisiana, in an effort to ensure that they will send Cruz-allied delegates to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Trump’s team is, in turn, crying foul, protesting that Cruz is openly exploiting the Byzantine patchwork of state-party delegate-selection procedures to contravene the will of Republican voters.

But Trump benefited from some of the preexisting rules that defied the “will of the electorate” as well. In “winner-take-all” states such as Florida and Arizona, Trump won less than half the vote and walked away with all the delegates. Kasich did the same in Ohio. The Trump campaign can argue they didn’t set up the winner-take-all rules, they just competed under them and used every advantage they could to put their man on top. And the Cruz campaign can make the same argument about their efforts to pilfer delegates now. They didn’t write the rules; they’re just pulling out all the stops to win under them.

RELATED: Trump Loses Delegates under the Rules, So He Wants to Change the Rules

In Louisiana, on primary night, Trump finished with 41 percent of the vote statewide and Cruz finished with 38 percent, which meant Trump would receive twelve bound delegates and Cruz would receive eleven, with another five at-large delegates unbound. Separately, 18 delegates were awarded based on the candidates’ finishes in the state’s congressional districts, of which Marco Rubio won five. Under state-party rules, delegates for candidates who suspend their campaigns become unbound. Because the five unbound delegates and the five delegates formerly allocated to Rubio are considered likely to back Cruz over Trump — they say they remain uncommitted to any candidate — some outlets have reported that Cruz will walk away with ten more delegates than Trump did, even though he finished second.

In Tennessee, congressional-district primary results yielded 18 delegates for Trump, six for Cruz, and three for Rubio. The statewide vote totals translated to twelve additional Trump delegates, ten for Cruz, and six for Rubio. Trump picked up another three delegates — Tennessee’s National Committeeman and Committeewoman, plus its state-party chairman — by winning the state.

#share#Under state-party rules, all of these delegates are bound to their respective candidates for two ballots in Cleveland. But how they’re chosen is more complicated. The 27 congressional-district delegates were elected directly during the primary, as were 14 of the 28 statewide delegates. But the other 14 were chosen by the state party’s executive committee, and the Trump campaign contends that at least two of the state party’s picks to be Trump delegates have expressed criticism of the candidate in the past. The state party dismisses the accusation, pointing out that all delegates will follow the rules and vote for the candidate they’re bound to . . . through the first two rounds.

RELATED: Yes, the Delegates Can Decide

In Georgia, Trump won 39 percent of the vote to Cruz’s 24 percent and Rubio’s 23 percent. Trump’s statewide finish netted him 14 delegates to Rubio’s nine and Cruz’s eight. But three delegates are awarded depending on the finish each congressional district; Cruz won 9 delegates for his finishes in the district, and Rubio won only 7. Thus, Cruz finished with 17 delegates despite placing third place overall, and Rubio finished with 16 delegates for second place. Trump finished with 43, including the three RNC members bound to the statewide winner.

But as in Tennessee, Georgia’s delegates are only bound to their candidates for two votes — and Cruz’s campaign is sending a mass of supporters to the county and congressional-district conventions that determine the pool of potential delegates chosen by the state Convention on June 3, in an effort to pack the state’s delegation with allies. The Cruz camp’s effort is perfectly within the rules, and Trump’s team could mount their own counter-operation if they wanted.

#related#It’s mostly a similar case in South Carolina, where Trump won all 50 delegates at stake on primary night, garnering 29 for winning statewide and 21 for sweeping all of the state’s seven congressional districts. South Carolina delegates are bound only on the first convention ballot. Throughout April, the congressional district conventions are selecting their 21 delegates, and on May 7, the state GOP convention will select the 26 at-large delegates. (The remaining three are, again, selected by the RNC and pledged to Trump for the first ballot.) The delegate elections are open only to those who attended last year’s state Republican convention, which is thought to put Trump at a disadvantage, since the kind of person who attends state GOP conventions in non-election years tends to be a party insider, and, thus, predisposed toward Cruz. There’s no uniformity of opinion among South Carolina Republicans, but South Carolina is thought to be one state from which Trump could lose lots of delegates if the convention requires more than one ballot.

Trump and his supporters can complain about these state rules all they want, but it isn’t as if they were changed midstream specifically to disadvantage the surprise front-runner. They’ve remained consistent since the nomination fight began, and there’s no evidence that Cruz has broken them. If Trump and his team can’t be bothered to read the fine print ahead of time, no one should feel sorry for them when it comes back to bite them later.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review Online.

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