Politics & Policy

The GOP Primary Rules Are ‘Rigged’ — but Not against Trump

Trump campaigns in Pittsburgh, Pa., April 26, 2016. (Jeff Swensen/Getty)

Sometime around 10 p.m. last night, from the gaudy lobby of his namesake skyscraper, Donald J. Trump stood behind a podium and professed his love for the people of the five Northeastern states that held primaries yesterday, capping a three-week stretch in which his campaign was one long rant about how the Republican nomination rules are “rigged” or “crooked.” He’s been half right. The system is rigged — but it’s rigged for his benefit and against his opponents.

Trump came out of yesterday’s election sweep with 944 delegates. His quest for the magic number of 1,237 delegates to clinch the nomination before the Cleveland convention this July is dependent on his ability to win in Indiana next week and post solid victories in California and New Jersey on June 7.

Before yesterday, Trump had won a majority of the votes in only one state  — his home state of New York. He’d only gotten close in Massachusetts, Mississippi, and the retiree havens of Florida, Nevada, and Arizona.

Before the campaign moved to his home region of the Acela corridor, Trump’s average vote performance was 36 percent — yet he had 46 percent of the delegates awarded. Precisely because of the bias in the Republican process, Trump spent all spring picking up delegates he did not deserve based on his portion of the popular vote.

RELATED: Donald Trump’s Insincere Process Arguments

Unlike the Democratic rules, the GOP rules place extra value on winning each state’s primary. Some states allow the statewide winner to grab the entire state delegation — Trump did that in Arizona and Florida. Other states enable the winner to grab a disproportionate share of delegates based on their victories in congressional districts. In Missouri, Trump used that quirk in the rules to get 37 delegates to Cruz’s meager 15, even though Trump bested Cruz by only 2,000 votes out of 900,000 cast there.

The Republican process is notable also for what it lacks: the unelected “super-delegates” that have propped up Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side even in the face of an avalanche of primary losses. These unbound delegates are the emergency brake in the Democratic engine to stop a runaway renegade nomination, and they are performing exactly that function against Senator Bernie Sanders.

EDITORIAL: Read the Rules, Mr. Trump

Democrats allocate 14.9 percent of their total delegate haul to these insiders. If Republicans did likewise, the GOP pool for earned delegates would be reduced by 368. From Trump’s weak performance attracting the support of elected officials — he has but one GOP Senator, Senator Jeff Sessions, behind his bid — it’s safe to assume he’d have few of those if they were part of the GOP system.

Coming out of yesterday’s East Coast primaries, Trump had 944 earned delegates. But if the 2,472 Republican delegates had been allocated in a manner similar to the that of Democratic system, with proportional allocations, he would be sitting somewhere around 707 delegates.

#share#Ted Cruz, meanwhile would have had roughly 485 or so earned delegates, plus the delegates chosen at state conventions, as in North Dakota and Colorado, which he has dominated with superior organization.

Once you account for Cruz’s likely prowess among the 368 “super-delegates” in this hypothetical scenario, it easy to imagine that Cruz would be ahead of Trump under Democratic-style rules, even with yesterday’s romp. We wouldn’t even be discussing whether an open convention was coming — we’d be guaranteed to have one.

The debate framework that winnowed the field last summer could not have been stacked further toward the billionaire.

The delegate rules aren’t the only facet of this GOP nomination contest that is tilted structurally in Trump’s favor. The debate framework that winnowed the field last summer could not have been stacked further toward the billionaire. He entered the contest with no ideological track record or public-policy successes. His only asset when the first debate lineup was set last July was his reality-TV fame. Once Fox News ironed out its debate criteria, based only on national polling, it not only put Trump at center stage, it marginalized some of his more accomplished rivals either as afterthoughts on the wings of the main stage or, worse yet, in the purgatory of the undercard debate.

While Trump got all the limelight of the moderators’ questions and subsequent all-day bookings on cable networks for post-debate spin, his rivals saw their exposure and fundraising wither. The debate rules barely changed for months, giving Trump an ongoing, artificial advantage suited perfectly for his media-only campaign. While other candidates did the hard work, cranked out policy papers, built grassroots organizations, identified voters, and trudged across Iowa and New Hampshire one coffee shop at a time, Trump lived in cable-news green rooms, protected by the debate rules. He got candidate welfare — and he thrived on it.

#related#Having used up all the advantage of the debate rules and now milking the party’s winner-take-all delegate allocations, Trump still wants to complain that he has been slighted. It’s an artificial kind of outrage in a political culture that refuses to discern the difference.

Trump is a weak front-runner who is struggling to unite his party and close out the nomination, but luckily for him, the rules are rigged to help him do just that, despite his protests and his own divisive strategy.

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