The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Republicans’ Rotten Boroughs

Before the passage of England’s Reform Laws in 1832 that changed district boundaries and rules for the House of Commons, England’s politics had become notorious for so-called rotten boroughs. These constituencies, each with vanishingly few residents due to long-term population shifts, elected members to parliament, making a mockery of the entire idea of democratic representation. Immediately before the reform law, more than one third of the House of Commons was elected from rotten boroughs of less than 100 voters. Looking at the 2016 GOP primaries it is hard to escape the conclusion that, while not as severe as the challenges facing 19th-century England, the Republican party has a similar problem with rotten boroughs.  And GOP voters need to demand that the party fix it.

The Republican party’s delegate-allocation rules are notoriously opaque. Indeed, there are entire web sites dedicated to understanding its complex rules and regulations. This post won’t even attempt to be comprehensive in that regard.

But while the number of delegate allocation scenarios are mind-boggling, the overall contours of the process are clear, and it is one that it dramatically favors establishment candidates, liberal Republicans, and party insiders at the expense of GOP base voters.

Take the recent votes from U.S. territories that are allocated delegates. Of these, 59 can be earned from territories (Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Marianas Island, and American Samoa) which, by the Constitution, have residents whose votes don’t count in the general election. In many cases, only a few hundred people at most are involved in the voting, and the opaque process is completely controlled by insiders (excepting Puerto Rico, which actually had a real election with almost 40,000 voters, even if none will be casting a ballot for the GOP in the general election.)  These are the rottenest of the GOP’s rotten boroughs.

In Guam’s “convention” the entire slate (save for the governor, who endorsed Ted Cruz) was won by “uncommitted,” likely acting on the behalf of party insiders.  In the Virgin Islands, Republican political consultant John Yob (who had just moved to the Virgin Islands), former national political director for Rand Paul and author of a book about contested political conventions, won over the few hundred voters for an uncommitted slate of delegates that will be attached to the national convention. The Northern Marianas, which votes today, is already rumored to have a similar fix in. There’s a name for a process like this, but it certainly isn’t democracy.

From there it gets worse. The District of Columbia, in which only six percent of voters are registered Republicans, and which had just 3,000 voters, has 19 delegates (just a few delegates fewer than New Hampshire) despite the fact that this is the deepest blue presidential voting area in the entire country. In terms of the GOP winning the Electoral College, no group’s votes could possibly be less relevant than D.C. Republicans. They make San Francisco’s Republican party look like an electoral powerhouse. Yet D.C.’s 3,000 GOP voters will send almost as many delegates as New Hampshire, a swing state in which 280,000 GOP voters participated in the primary. (To be fair, New Hamphire’s delegate count is partially reduced because it occurs early in the primary schedule)

Consider also the Democrats’ “blue wall,” the 18 states plus D.C. that have voted for the Democrats in each of the last six presidential elections. Despite some reasonable political scientists’ critiques of the blue wall as a concept, it seems to be a fair representation of solidly Democratic states in which this GOP will only be competitive in unusual circumstances. Even with an eight-point evenly distributed swing in the national popular vote, only three of these states would vote for Republicans, and in that scenario a GOP candidate would almost certainly be able to win the election without them.

Given their poor predictive history of supporting GOP candidates and poor immediate future prospects for doing so, one might expect the GOP to assign very little weight to voters from these states in trying to pick its candidates. But it does not. While exact counts are difficult to estimate due to the bewildering variety of scenarios, I’d estimate that 750 or so delegates can be won through candidates winning decisive victories in the so-called “blue wall” states that have no recent history of supporting GOP nominees. A candidate winning these would need less than 500 of the remaining 1800+ delegates from states with any history of supporting the GOP candidates to win the GOP nomination on the first ballot. More realistically, only 300 or 400 delegates from actual GOP-voting states would probably put that candidate close enough to the nomination that he or she would eventually pull it out.  This emphasis on blue-state Republicans disenfranchises the party’s base.

Furthermore some blue-wall states (including Illinois, which votes today, and California, the largest delegate prize of any state) have delegate rules that award winner-take-all delegates to the winner in each congressional district, a prospect that further penalizes candidates who represent the GOP’s core voters.  California awards 159 of its 172 delegates by Congressional district (three per Congressional district) along with a small number of at large delegates. In 2012, Democratic candidates for Congress took more than 70 percent in 22 of California’s 53 Congressional Districts. Republicans who live in these heavily Democratic areas tend to be considerably more liberal than Republicans as a whole. There are also, by definition, not so many of them. Yet their votes collectively will account for 66 delegates.  Not only is the GOP primary outcome thus biased toward more liberal or establishment-oriented Republicans, even within the more liberal states, the outcome is biased to favor more liberal candidates.

As the saying goes, “it doesn’t mater who votes, it matters who counts the votes.” The GOP base is unquestionably angry right now, and it feels it has momentum on its side. But if GOP voters don’t pay more attention in the future to who is counting the votes, and fix a process that cries out for reform, they may once again find their ambitions frustrated.

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